Originally created 05/07/00

Growth alarms officials



Augusta Regional Airport at Bush Field's prospects for increased service, lower fares and direct flights to major cities suddenly look a lot better, thanks to federal legislation designed to help small and medium-size airports.

During the next three years, The Wendell H. Ford Aviation Investment and Reform Act for the 21st Century will increase the federal government's investment in aviation by more than $10 billion, with most of it going to much-needed airport construction projects.

A scan of the $40 billion bill, signed by President Clinton last month, makes one wonder whether lawmakers might have had Augusta in mind when they created it.

The new legislation and increased funding come as the Augusta Aviation Commission is about to move forward with much-needed runway improvements, a terminal expansion project and a new master plan.

"AIR 21," as it is commonly referred to by legislators and aviators alike, increases the amount of federal money available for terminal expansion projects and runway improvements.

More important, the bill opens up the nation's major airports -- Chicago's O'Hare, Washington's Reagan International, New York's LaGuardia and Kennedy -- and gives priority access to those airlines willing to provide nonstop service to and from small hub or nonhub airports such as Augusta Regional.

The bill creates an incentive program to help commercial airlines buy regional jets if the airlines agree to use the planes to serve small and underserved airports.

To make these nonstop flights economically feasible for smaller airlines, federal loans and grants will be available to subsidize service at underused airports. Money also will be available to help airports obtain jet service and increase flight availability.

In keeping with the push to improve nonhub airports, the bill creates a funding program to help promote and market smaller airports and air service.

The hope, airport officials say, is that these efforts will reduce the large number of people flying out of the major hubs while boosting the stagnant numbers at regional airports.

What alarms FAA officials and airport executives are the growing number of air travelers using hub airports like Atlanta and Chicago and the shrinking number of air travelers using smaller airports such as Augusta or Gary, Ind.

Last year, Americans used airports more than 650 million times to get from point A to point B. That number is predicted to climb to 1 billion by the end of the decade. The United States already is home to 19 of the world's 20 busiest airports, according to international airport officials.

Even more daunting is the continued surge in the air cargo industry. In 1999, a record 11.7 billion tons of freight moved through America's airports. That number, economic forecasters say, will reach 22.6 billion by 2010.

Such dramatic increases in airport use led the National Civil Aviation Association to predict gridlock at America's airports within the next 15 years.

AIR 21 is the federal government's attempt to avoid that gridlock scenario.

"They didn't have a choice," said Joel Bacon, director of federal affairs for the American Association of Airport Executives. "You'd need 10 airports the size of Atlanta's to address the traffic problem. It's impossible to build large airports like Atlanta's today. Where would you put them?"

The only solution was to expand and improve secondary airports and get some of those 650 million air travelers to start using them, Mr. Bacon said.

Increased funding to airport improvement programs was the first priority for groups like the American Association of Airport Executives and the FAA, Mr. Bacon said. Increasing competition and improving service at smaller airports like Augusta's was a close second.

Business travelers and tourists flying in or out of Augusta Regional Airport have long complained about the high ticket prices, the absence of direct flights to major cities and the propensity for canceled flights.

"Certainly, Augusta isn't unique in this problem," Mr. Bacon said. "There are a number of other communities, small airport communities, exactly in the same boat: high fares, not the level of service most people expect, few alternatives. It's a fairly common problem, and, thankfully, Congress was able to do something to address it."

Augusta's aviation officials agree.

"I think the bill is absolutely terrific and badly needed," said Tim Weegar, interim director of Augusta Regional Airport. "If they continue on like they say they're going to, it will be nothing but good things for Augusta."

First introduced in March 1999, AIR 21 took more than a year to find its way through Congress and onto the desk of the president.

"At last, help is on the way," declared U.S. Rep. Bud Shuster, R-Pa., on the day President Clinton signed AIR 21 into law. Mr. Shuster, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, played an instrumental role in getting the bill approved.

"This legislation will make our skies safer, modernize air traffic control, reduce flight delays and boost airline competition," Mr. Shuster said. "This legislation will revitalize our overburdened aviation system."

Georgia's airports will see an immediate impact: In 2001, Augusta Regional Airport's federal appropriations will increase from $939,000 to $1.97 million.

Columbus, which received $643,000 this year, will get $1.2 million. Savannah will go from $1.76 million to $3.7 million in federal appropriations.

Augusta, like the rest of Georgia's airports, will be eligible for the improvement and development funds created in the bill, provided the Augusta Aviation Commission submits its grant requests by the June 1 deadline.

"We're working on that right now," said David Dorminey, the airport marketing director. "These are all things that will really impact us. Opportunities is what they are. We'll certainly go after them."

Local attorney Jim Wilson, a member of the Augusta Aviation Commission, is now working with Sen. Paul Coverdell, R-Ga., to make sure Augusta fills its paperwork out correctly and gets in line for as much federal funding as possible.

Reach Justin Martin at (706) 823-3552.