December 21, 2016

Athens Officials Are Recruiting an Airline

City Dope

Photo Credit: Athens-Clarke County

Athens-Clarke County commissioners heard a presentation at their Dec. 15 work session from the Airport Authority’s Airline Committee, a group of dedicated volunteers who want affordable, dependable air service to return to Athens-Ben Epps Airport. They updated the Mayor and Commission about the progress of bringing an airline to Athens—as well as the challenges of keeping an airline in business and finding funds to continue their efforts to find suitable air service.

Currently, charter planes, military planes and flight schools all use the airport, but there’s no consumer air service. From 1970–2002, U.S. Airways provided service to Charlotte. For the next few years, various other companies took over, ending with Seaport, which provided service to Nashville until Congress canceled Athens’ Essential Air Service subsidy in 2014.

Athens is one of nine commercial airports in the state and one of five with no commercial airline. Changes in the airline industry and proximity to Atlanta seem to have left Athens high and dry—jets have replaced propeller planes, but smaller jets are just too inefficient to operate.

A $17 million runway project at Ben Epps has been completed, resulting in a 6,200-foot runway capable of accommodating 70-person passenger jets regularly or a 110-person jet, the size plane UGA often uses, five times a year, said airline committee member Beth Higgins. Work on a commercial terminal has begun.

There seems to be a demand for air service, judging by the number of people from the Athens area flying out of Atlanta. In 2013, 1,660 people who live within a 40-minute drive of Athens flew each way per day, 94 percent into or out of Hartsfield-Jackson. The most popular destinations were New York and Washington, DC, according to an analysis of demand for air service.

There are ways to translate demand into sustainable air service, Higgins said. The first step seems to be creating public-private partnerships, as other communities have done. They consider air service as part of a transportation system to support other economic initiatives. In Athens, a working group has formed whose members come from Piedmont Athens Regional hospital, UGA, Georgia Power, the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce and the Athens Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Two federal programs provide grants to support the development of air service, and there are various incentive options as well. Higgins wants the Mayor and Commission to let airport manager Tim Beggerly apply for a Federal Small Community Air Service Development Grant, which can be as much as $750,000.