A convenience to the business and military community, American Airlines didn’t feel the nonstop flight was worth keeping when it was forced by the U.S. Justice Department to sell off flight slots at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport to satisfy antitrust concerns.
“It is a sad day for us. I worked so hard for that flight, and to have the FAA interfere and force them to get rid of our slot is just frustrating,” said Diane Johnston, marketing director for Augusta Regional Airport.
While the nonstop flight’s cancelation doesn’t affect the cost of getting from Augusta to Washington, D.C., it does present a scenario of losing a direct link at a time when demand to get there will be increasing because of the added missions at Fort Gordon.
“I continue to talk to them about Washington service. My contacts out there say they will continue to look at it as traffic builds,” Johnston said, citing the relocation of the Cyber Command to Fort Gordon.
Business leaders and Augusta Regional Airport officials are now trying to establish a new link, just to a different Washington area airport, by tracking the number of people headed there from Augusta and then using the data to prove the case for a new nonstop flight to American Airlines or Delta Air Lines or a possible third airline.
IT MAY NOT BE TO Reagan National, which is in the city center, but it could be to Dulles on the western end of the metroplex or Baltimore-Washington to the north.
Johnston said Baltimore-Washington is a strong contender, being served by both Delta and American.
Thom Tuckey, a retired colonel who is the executive director for the CSRA Alliance for Fort Gordon, said National Security Agency personnel in Augusta have a need to go to Fort Meade, which is closer to the Baltimore airport.
“A direct flight into BWI would be more beneficial for them, and folks going to the Pentagon can take the train from BWI into downtown D.C.,” Tuckey said.
Tuckey said the loss of the direct flight doesn’t affect any of the mission growth at Fort Gordon.
“I think it was a benefit to the folks that had to go back and forth to D.C., just like businesses,” he said. “It is more convenience than anything else.”
The loss of the direct flight would add to the travel time. Delta passengers would lay over in Atlanta. US Airways/American passengers would lay over in Charlotte. Johnston said Charlotte layovers tend to be shorter, even 30 minutes so, from her own personal experience.
And the need to go to Washington is not limited to the military or to employees of federal agencies. Sue Parr, the executive director of the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce, said the local business community, especially those in research, banking or health care, also rely on quick and reliable travel there.
“There’s a large contingency of people going to D.C.,” she said. That includes the area chambers of commerce, which traveled to Washington last week for business lobbying.
“Our strategy right now is – in conjunction with the airport – to make sure that the business community has a strong voice with the airlines,” Parr said. “We need to make sure they are aware of the economic development activity that we have going on in Augusta.”
What officials are worried about now is losing D.C. travelers to the Columbia airport, or Atlanta, which would limit the ability to prove the need for a new Augusta flight to an airline.
“The key there is if any of the D.C. traffic leaks to Columbia or Atlanta to use their direct flights, then we’re not going to get credit for that need. They have no way of knowing those people started in Augusta,” Tuckey said.
THAT THIRD AIRLINE or third destination has been difficult to hold, historically, for Augusta Regional.
Outside of Delta and US Airways, and their regional counterparts, other airlines historically have had trouble maintaining a long-lived presence in Augusta, though most of the losses were for reasons beyond the airport’s control.
American Eagle Airlines had two stints in Augusta. The regional carrier flew from 1991 to 1993, stopping because American and American Eagle reduced the number of cities it served; then Eagle flew a route to Dallas from mid-2010 to the beginning of 2012, ceasing its second stint because its parent company filed bankruptcy.
In 2000 and 2001, Comair was a Delta connection carrier to Cincinnati. It pulled out in late 2001 after a pilot’s strike and a drop in air travel that followed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
And then Continental Express took its place as the third carrier in Augusta. It flew passengers to Newark and Houston for almost two years before stopping service in 2004, citing a lack of business passengers.
Johnston said what helped to convince American Eagle to come back was the airport running some of its operations, defraying the need for a capital expense in setting up its own ticket counter or hiring its own ground staff. The airline was also attracted to the volume of military traffic, officials said at the time.
Two’s company, but three seems to be a crowd. Landing a third airline again is doubtful, Johnston said. Through mergers, there are fewer airlines to begin with, but mainly the other airlines’ business models don’t suit flying to Augusta. Many of the low-cost carriers target either warm-weather leisure destinations, such as Allegiant, or high-traffic corridors – JetBlue. Virgin America tends to concentrate on travel from one coast to the other.
Southwest Airlines, the largest domestic airline after acquiring AirTran, does not have a regional carrier to target small airports, and according to its corporate data, the smallest jet in its fleet is a 117-seat Boeing 717-200. Most small airports are served by 50-seat or 76-seat jets, according to an airline trends study conducted annually by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s International Center for Air Transportation.
“When you look at attracting a new airline, which was amazing for us to see American come in here, they don’t have the support team in place,” Johnston explained. “They don’t have facilities at the terminal and they don’t have employees.”
GETTING ADDITIONAL destinations for Augusta has a better chance of success, however.
“With the traffic increases that we’ve seen, we’ve been on their radars,” Johnston said of airlines. “I am going to be targeting a couple of airlines for Dallas service, including American now that they’ve come out of bankruptcy.”
With the merger of American and US Airways, getting the Dallas flight back doesn’t have the hurdles of infrastructure that were present the other times American wanted to service Augusta.
“I don’t think we’ll see it in the next six months, but I do think we’ll see it in the future,” Johnston said.
Helping to make the case for more flights and destinations is the number of people using Augusta Regional.
According to the MIT study, Augusta had a 4.9 percent increase in the number of seats in the market from 2012 to 2013. Airlines had 337,858 available seats last year.
“At one point, we had no mainline flights at all from Delta or US Airways,” Johnston said. “Delta now has two mainlines a day.”
The advantage to retiring the smaller regional jets, the puddle jumpers with only 37 or 50 seats, and replacing them with bigger jets with upward of 124 seats, she explained, is that the airline saves money with fewer flights but is still able to meet passenger demand.
But it is also resulting in more capacity. Two 50-seat jets get retired, replaced by a 124-seat jet, and 24 more seats have been introduced in the market.
Augusta’s airport has seen more than 500,000 passengers a year for three years now. It peaked in 2012 with 548,000 total passengers and is on pace this year to reach half a million again.