There seems to be a significant amount of interest among locals for commercial air service in Athens, and airport officials have had some interest from prospective carriers that have been eyeing Athens-Ben Epps Airport, an airport official told Athens-Clarke County’s mayor and commissioners.
As reported in the Athens Banner-Herald, Athens-Ben Epps Airport Authority member Beth Higgins didn’t tell the mayor and commission at their Thursday public work session which airlines were looking at Athens, citing concerns about revealing details prematurely.
Higgins said there is evidence the Athens airport could attract a substantial number of commercial passengers, if they could easily get to top destinations found in a 2014 study of the airline market in Athens-Clarke, Oconee and parts of eight surrounding counties within a 40-minute drive of Athens-Ben Epps Airport.
According to the Sixel Consulting Group study, the top five destinations for local passengers are, according to 2013 numbers on ticketed passengers, New York, Washington, D.C., South Florida, Chicago and Los Angeles.
Currently, air carriers serving Athens have mostly flown to Charlotte, where local passengers could transfer to flights to their final destinations. For a short time, service to Atlanta was available, but the last air carrier to serve Athens, the now-defunct SeaPort Airlines, offered service to Nashville.
There are several challenges in bringing sustained commercial air service to Athens, Higgins said in a briefing delivered at the mayor and commission’s non-voting work session. One problem is that smaller airlines interested in serving Athens are “few and far between.”
Major airlines, the so-called “legacy carriers” like Delta, are not much interested in serving short routes, Mayor Nancy Denson and the commissioners learned Thursday. Large airlines have been phasing out the propeller-driven aircraft that have traditionally served shorter routes.
In making the transition to all-jet fleets, airlines have discovered that 50-seat jets are expensive to operate, so they have moved to jets that can carry from 70 to 100 passengers. At that point, though, there is no operational efficiency for the airlines in serving markets like Athens.
Among the strategies that might be helpful in bringing commercial air service to Athens would be tax incentives, airport incentives like landing-fee waivers, “ticket banks” in which larger local institutions purchase tickets in advance and allocate them as needed to their travelers, and revenue guarantees to airlines that could be funded through a federal Small Community Air Service Development Grant.
Higgins and the rest of the Airline Committee, along with Airport Director Tim Beggerly, approached the mayor and commission about considering allocating $65,000 in the upcoming fiscal year to air service development, with $25,000 for marketing Athens and the airport, $20,000 for consultant services, and another $20,000 for recruiting a commercial air carrier.
Commissioner Kelly Girtz had the most hard-eyed assessment of commercial air service recruitment efforts. If further efforts toward attracting commercial air service reveal that Athens isn’t in “that sweet spot” for attracting sustainable commercial service, Girtz said, the county might want to consider some sort of transit option linking Athens to the Atlanta airport. At least one private shuttle service already operates between Athens and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
During Thursday’s presentation, Higgins said she is optimistic that some air carriers will find a way to offer service from places like Athens to popular destinations.
“There’s got to be a business model out there, and some entrepreneur is going to come into these small airports,” she said.
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