The good news for Bush Field in a recent travel study is there are 100,000 potential customers, representing at least $22 million in one-way fares annually, living in the Augusta area. The challenge is getting them to quit using other airports.
An estimated 55 percent of Augusta ticket buyers fly from other airports, mostly to find cheaper fares, according to the initial report from Cincinnati-based Airport Technology and Planning Group.
The next installment of the report, due in February, will demonstrate which destinations those potential passengers go to. That information will be used to show airlines the money they could make if they added flights at Bush Field.
"The most significant finding that we encountered was the data that showed the travel agents in the market are sending over half the passengers out of Atlanta," said Pam Keidel, project manager for the study.
Two small travel agencies submitted records of the 250 tickets they sold during a one-month period, and 82 percent were for flights leaving out of Atlanta. None of the other 28 travel agencies in the market submitted the records as requested in time for the initial report, but the six largest have agreed to send computer summaries of their ticket sales during that month, she said.
"The thing that is most useful to us is the travel agent survey. That the thing that tells us the leakage to other markets," said Albert McDill, general manager of Bush Field.
He estimated 100,000 passengers a year use Atlanta and Columbia airports to save money. But Augusta's traffic has increased since Columbia-based Air South folded this fall and fares at that airport have risen closer to those at Bush Field, he said.
"There is just a preconceived notion that the fares are just better out of Atlanta or Columbia. That's just not always the case," Mr. McDill said.
For some of the most popular destinations out of Augusta, such as New York and Washington, D.C., Augusta's fares are often lower than Atlanta's, he said. Travel agents and passengers don't know about those bargains because they have gotten into the habit of automatically dismissing Augusta departures, he said.
Federal figures show the average one-way fare from Augusta is $216, the highest of 10 comparable cities the study examined. Augusta has a passenger level equal to metropolitan areas half its size, the study showed.
"We see it as more of a fare issue," Ms. Keidel said.
None of the airports compared to Augusta in the study were within driving distance of a major hub with the number of competing airlines that Augusta faces with Atlanta's Hartsfield International Airport. The competition at Hartsfield keeps fares there low, she said.
"There's not really a comparable airport to Atlanta," she said.
Augusta business leaders hope increased competition at Bush Field will drive down fares and help the area lure more conventions and factories.
Just this week, Delta Air Lines released an economic study they say justifies expanding Hartsfield.