As gas prices continue to soar and airlines announce new fees and flight reductions on what seems like a daily basis, airports across the state are steadily losing capacity -- except for Augusta's.
Numbers from the Official Airline Guide for October of this year show Augusta Regional Airport increasing its capacity by 5.4 percent compared with the same period last year. Capacity is the average daily number of seats on departures to domestic airports.
The Official Airline Guide is a U.K.-based travel news, data and ranking service that maintains an electronic database with more than 1,000 airlines and 3,500 daily flights.
Augusta has about 630 seats daily, whether through larger aircraft or additional flights, according to the data.
Unlike other regional airports in the state, Augusta Regional is served by more than one airline, forcing carriers to keep fares low to compete for passengers, airport marketing director Diane Johnston said.
Add to that high gas prices, which make it cost more to drive to airports in Atlanta or Columbia. The average price for a gallon of regular gasoline was $3.94 in Augusta on Tuesday.
Through March, 50,643 seats were available out of Augusta, a 7.69 percent increase from a year earlier.
Ms. Johnston said she expects that trend to continue, though she warns it might slow because many airlines have recently announced cutbacks that they won't start implementing until fall.
"We are in a wait-and-see mode right now," Ms. Johnston said. "We might be OK because we have very reasonable fares."
But if economic conditions for the airline industry worsen, the bubble could burst.
"We could lose some service," Ms. Johnston said. "September and October are fairly slow months for us."
In November 2006, US Airways merged with American West Airlines to become a low-fare carrier. Augusta was one of the first markets where the newly formed airline tested lower fares. Atlantic Southeast Airlines was forced to lower its fares as a result.
Wendy Dyer, a North Augusta resident who recently started flying out of Augusta, said the long drive and expensive parking in Atlanta weren't worth the trouble. Besides, she said, the lower fares now compete with rising gas prices.
"It's really about convenience," Ms. Dyer said. "I'd rather just fly from right here."
Still, driving to Atlanta or Columbia might be cheaper if the airlines continue to tack on fees.
"The airlines have added fuel surcharges and consolidated many flights," said Judy Reville, the division manager for AAA Augusta. "Some airlines have already started charging for the first bag." Ms. Reville predicts families will hit the road in large numbers this summer because they still want to take that family vacation.
"More people are going to be driving because they are not going to be able to afford to fly," Ms. Reville said. "Driving is still the least expensive way to travel."
High gas prices are taking their toll, though.
EZ Ride of Augusta increased its fares by 10 percent to offset the cost of fuel. The shuttle service offers several daily trips from Augusta to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
"Gas costs are 50 percent more than last year," said Aladien Fadel, EZ Ride's general manager. "We are trying to minimize the costs on passengers."
Even though he has had to raise fares, Mr. Fadel said, ridership has steadily increased.
"We have more people because they are finding it to be more economical than using their own cars," Mr. Fadel said.
Reach Nick Needham at (706) 724-0851 or firstname.lastname@example.org.