Originally created 02/15/99

Savannah businessmen try to influence airlines



SAVANNAH -- Air travelers in southeast Georgia have a saying: "Even when you go to heaven, you'll probably have to connect through Atlanta."

But a group of local businessmen is trying to change that, banding their ticket-buying power together for some clout when it comes to dealing with airlines servicing the coastal city.

Passengers in the economically booming area want to say "here's $20 million, let's negotiate," said Savannah Area Chamber of Commerce Chairman Al Kennickell.

The complaints are the same as many mid-sized cities throughout Georgia -- low competition creates higher fares, especially for businessmen who travel on short notice. Delta Air Lines is the main airline servicing the city, and most flights go through Atlanta, a Delta hub.

Savannah and the surrounding area has also become a big tourist destination, but there are no direct flights to cities such as Chicago, Miami or New York.

That got Savannah International Airport Commission members Stephen Booker and Sylvester Formey thinking about what has become TravelSmart.

The Airport Commission, Chamber of Commerce and the Savannah Economic Development Authority are sponsoring the program, and the goal is to get $20 million in commitments from local residents and businesses.

Wielding that economic power, the group would approach airlines about new routes and lower fares, although organizers gave no figures on estimated savings.

"We will be able to apply competitive pressure to the pricing mechanism that is used by the big seven airlines," Mr. Formey said.

TravelSmart has already begun courting members with a marketing blitz that includes billboards, print and broadcast ads, and a Web site.

Frequent flyers or businesses looking to lower travel costs can sign up on the site or by phone.

Mr. Kennickell said the program already has $8 million in commitments and expects to have the full $20 million by April or May.

"Unfortunately, we are used to paying premium prices in Savannah," said Savannah City Alderman Ellis Cook. "This will make it a lot more economical to travel in and out of Savannah."