Originally created 08/19/00

Augusta aims for airlines



Colorado Springs did it. So did Savannah.

These communities succeeded in improving air service and increasing flights at their airports with an array of lures, including new terminals, new runways and new roadways.

Proof enough, Augusta Aviation Commissioner Ernie Smith likes to say, that if you build it, the airlines will come.

But for every Colorado Springs, there is a Melbourne, Fla. - a city that built it but then the airlines didn't come.

A few years ago, Melbourne spent more than $150 million on a new terminal, an international terminal and roadway and runway improvements.

Today, Melbourne International Airport has seven gates, three runways and two terminals.

And even though Melbourne is on Florida's east coast, an hour's drive from Orlando and 25 minutes from the Kennedy Space Center, there is no new air service to speak of.

And there are no international flights.

"We're still waiting," said Bob Becker, the airport's marketing director. "We've come close a few times. TWA wants to come here, but they keep putting us off."

Other airlines, including Continental, United and Eagle, keep telling Melbourne, "you're on our radar screen," Mr. Becker said.

Meanwhile, Delta Air Lines continues to provide the same eight flights a day it always had (and they all go through Atlanta), one Spirit flight a day brings passengers to New York's LaGuardia, and another regional jet company provides a flight to Toronto, but only on Sundays, and only during the winter season.

"It's a catch-22; do you build up the airport ahead of time and hope the airlines come, or do you try and lure the airlines and then build the airport?" Mr. Becker said. "We built the terminal."

It is the same situation the Augusta Aviation Commission finds itself in as it moves forward with a master plan - a road map of sorts that will show the airport how to get where it wants to go - and considers what kind of expansion and improvements are needed at Augusta Regional Airport.

"It's all about being in the right place at the right time," Mr. Becker said.

The community of Colorado Springs, just a 75-minute drive from Denver, knows all about that.

Throughout the 1980s, the Colorado Springs Airport underwent several expansions as it struggled to keep up with dramatic increases in passengers and cargo. Western Pacific Airlines made the airport its hub, and business really boomed.

In 1994, Colorado Springs spent more than $80 million building a new, three-level, midfield terminal with 12 gates. The new terminal was the only way to keep up with the growing demand by travelers and increased flights by airlines, said Mary Collins, the airport's spokeswoman.

But, Ms. Collins said, it was not the size of the airport or the number of runways that made the venture a success, it was the number of airlines flying in and out of the city.

"It's the market that drives the airport," she said. "I don't think a new terminal has anything to do with it."

More than 2.5 million passengers flew in and out of Colorado Springs Airport in 1999. The number is expected to increase in 2000 and in the future. Airport officials predict they will need a new terminal or an expansion of the existing facility by 2015, just 20 years after the existing building opened.

If things were to break just right, the same kind of growth could occur in Augusta, airport experts say. The most important piece of the puzzle would be bringing a low fare regional airline into Augusta.

Those in the industry call it "the Southwest effect."

When a low fare airline comes into the market, almost always, fares at all of that airport's airlines drop 16 percent and the number of people using the airport increases 25 percent, said Michael Moroney, an aviation consultant with Black and Veatch Corp.

"People are hungry for low airfares," he said.

Several Augusta aviation officials have hinted that Air Tran Airways of Orlando, Fla., is interested in bringing service to Augusta. Joe Leonard, the company's CEO, is an Augusta native.

On Friday, Jim Brown, a spokesman for Air Tran, said Mr. Leonard has no plans to add service to Augusta now or in the near future. "Augusta is certainly not on our short list of potential new cities for service," Mr. Brown said.

Augusta should not give up hope, airport experts say, because there are plenty of other airlines looking in the next year to three years to expand into other regions.

Augusta's airplane passenger base is believed to be around 400,000. Augusta Regional Airport is only capturing about a third of the market. The rest of air travelers are going to Columbia, Atlanta or Savannah.

Marketing directors and airport experts agree that luring those air travelers back to Augusta will be the biggest key to improving air service.

Reach Justin Martin at (706) 823-3552.