Originally created 12/17/00

Aviation groups come to airport's aid



It wasn't anything the Augusta Aviation Commission hadn't heard before.

"You need new service by a new airline to a new hub, quite frankly," Bill Rathert, vice president of Minneapolis-based aviation consulting firm Kiehl Hendrickson, told Ed Skinner, Ed McIntyre and the rest of Augusta Regional Airport's oversight board Thursday morning.

But what is new is the way Mr. Rathert's firm and another unrelated aviation group are promising to help Augusta solve its airport woes.

Kiehl Hendrickson is an airport consulting firm of former airline marketers, schedule makers and analyzers who used to market airlines to communities and now do the reverse.

"Our job working with airports is to show them how they can make money in your community, how they can provide service for your needs and get the kinds of returns they need," Mr. Rathert said.

Interim Airport Director Tim Weegar called the company's plan the most innovative idea he's seen in 16 years of airport management.

The other opportunity that presented itself to the aviation commission last week came in the form of former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad.

Mr. Branstad, who spent 16 years as governor of the Hawkeye State, is now barnstorming the county, trying to increase support for what he calls a "national grass-roots movement to improve air service for small and emerging cities around the county."

Mr. Branstad has been to New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, Illinois and California, promoting his 6-month-old lobbyist group.

The goal is to link dozens of small, underserved markets such as Augusta together and give them a loud voice in Washington.

The name of the group is GAIN, the Global Aviation Improvement Network.

"Our goals and efforts are to upgrade and improve air traffic control systems, to make sure the funding is there for the transportation initiatives passed last year (federal support for airport infrastructure improvements) and advocate access to the global marketplace," Mr. Branstad told aviation commissioners and members of the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce on Thursday morning.

The organization is funded through a grant from United Airlines, monetary donations from several local chambers of commerce and private business, and other donations.

Mr. Branstad said he is hopeful the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and later the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the Association of Counties, will support his endeavor.

He said he is unsure whether his group will seek membership dues or fees from communities such as Augusta in the future. He said all he needs now is the endorsement of the Augusta Aviation Commission.

Commission members decided to make a decision on their endorsement at January's regular airport commission meeting.

Mr. Branstad said the real value of being part of GAIN is that airport officials in Augusta would have access to surveys, studies and other data from success stories in Milwaukee and Des Moines, Iowa.

"We can share that information and strategy and have the cloud of a nationwide group helping you," Mr. Branstad said. "It isn't going to supplant what you're already doing, but it will give you more strength."

Kiehl Hendrickson promises to give Augusta some of that strength by sharing its marketing surveys, airport analysis studies and other data collection, then presenting that information and trying to sell Augusta to airlines.

"The only thing that lowers airfares is competition," Mr. Rathert said. "The only thing that is going to reduce your leakage and solve the kind of problems that are affecting Augusta is competition."

Part of the information gathered by Kiehl Hendrickson will be a leakage study, a survey of how many people live in Augusta but choose to fly out of Atlanta or Columbia and why.

The consulting firm will also do a market yield study, showing how much money, per mile, an airline would make by adding new service from Augusta to a major destination such as Washington or New York.

"We're specialists," Mr. Rathert said. "This is what we do. We used to do it for them, and now we do it for people like you."

What makes Kiehl Hendrickson's offer so attractive and ultimately irresistible - the commission voted unanimously to hire the consultants - is that the firm charges $15,000 for the surveys and then adopts a pay-for-performance goal.

If the number of people using the airport doesn't increase, the consultants don't get paid. On average, the firm would make $4 to $5 per person using the airport.

"I've never heard of anything like it before," Mr. Weegar told the commission.

Mr. Rathert said new airline service will not happen overnight, next week or next year. But, he said, Augusta has a lot going for it and a lot of things already in place that airlines look for: a stable economy, some high-tech business, expansion opportunities, even international name recognition.

But, as the Aviation Commission has heard before, the proximity to Atlanta and Columbia, the lack of a low-fare airline, and a propensity for people to drive to other airports are all negative factors.

"It isn't enough to be a good opportunity anymore," Mr. Rathert said. "The competition between airports is so fierce that you have to be the most profitable opportunity in their system."

Reach Justin Martin at (706) 823-3552.