Originally created 10/15/00

New airport promotions prepare for takeoff



Within the next few weeks, all the signs along Bobby Jones Expressway and around town will be changed from "Bush Field" to "Augusta Regional Airport."

It is a small change, perhaps even a marginal one, but for those trying to change perceptions and realities of Augusta's only commercial airport, every little bit helps.

The airport has struggled in recent years to retain a steady customer base. Experts estimate 50 percent of the airport's potential customers choose Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport or Columbia Metropolitan Airport as opposed to Augusta.

This summer's announcement that Delta Air Lines plans to discontinue service to Augusta on Dec. 1 hasn't helped increase use of the airport, nor has the high number of canceled and delayed flights by Delta subsidiary Atlantic Southeast Airlines.

Augusta Regional Airport's marketing department is hoping ComAir can help solve some of those problems.

The regional jet airline company, known for its 50-seat planes, begins nonstop service to Cincinnati on Dec. 1. Two flights a day aboard regional jets will bring Augusta area travelers to Delta's second largest hub.

From Cincinnati, travelers can board connecting flights to 90 destinations. In some cases, flying through Cincinnati will be cheaper than flying to Atlanta or Charlotte, airport officials said.

"I can't stress enough that if we don't use this ComAir service, it is going to go away," David Dorminey, Augusta Regional Airport's marketing director, said Thursday to the Augusta Aviation Commission. "It's really important that we educate people about who ComAir is and what they're about and what services they have to offer and we get people on board, get them on the airplane."

To that end, Mr. Dorminey and other airport officials, including interim Airport Director Tim Weegar, plan to fly 50 of the area's civic and business leaders, plus members of the media, to Cincinnati on Oct. 26.

At the same time, a similar entourage from Cincinnati will come to Augusta and learn more about the Garden City.

"We want to get as much mileage out of this as possible," Mr. Weegar said. "This is what I call the foundation for other things to happen down the road."

Some, including members of the Air Service Task Force, say ComAir's service is designed to fail: Flights departing Augusta for Cincinnati leave at 10:30 a.m. and 8:45 p.m. Julian Miller, chairman of the task force, has said several times that ComAir needs to provide an early morning flight for the service to succeed.

Delta Air Lines and ComAir officials say ComAir's December flights are filling up quickly. Mr. Dorminey expects the initial surge to subside. That's when he said the real work will begin.

"Maybe that's when you ought to promote the service," aviation commission member Whitney O'Keeffe said.

More promotions require more money, Mr. Dorminey said. His marketing budget for this year was grossly underfunded: Airports similar in size to Augusta spend between $250,000 and $400,000 on marketing, advertising and promotions. Augusta's marketing budget, including Mr. Dorminey's salary, is $125,000 this year.

As of Oct. 1, Mr. Dorminey said he had $40,000 left in the marketing account, $25,000 of which he expects to spend promoting ComAir's service. That would leave him with $15,000 from now until Dec. 31 to spend on everything from airline recruiting trips to advertising and promotions. Not enough, he has said.

Without a marketing budget, Mr. Dorminey said he can't make the sales pitches he needs to grow air service at the airport.

Earlier this month, Mr. Dorminey met with representatives of USAir. His goal: to show the number of seats Delta Air Lines is leaving behind and persuade USAir to bring one of their larger jets into the Augusta market.

The aviation commission approved Mr. Dorminey's request to add $35,000 to the marketing budget for this year. The request still needs the county commission's approval. That approval could come as early as next week.

Mr. Dorminey said ComAir will add more flights if Augusta travelers support the service. More important is the theory that other regional airlines - Air Tran Airways, Mesa Airlines, even Southwest or American Airlines - will see ComAir's success as a magnet that lures their service to Augusta.

A luncheon introducing business leaders to ComAir is set for Nov. 9 at the Pinnacle Club. That night, airport officials plan to hold a reception for travel agents and others at the Augusta Country Club.

"We need to do everything we can," aviation commission member Marcie Wilhelmi said.

Reach Justin Martin at (706) 823-3552.