After spending the past two months examining Augusta Regional Airport's passenger levels, a consultant concluded the airport is on what he called "a death spiral."
More than a decade of having the highest ticket prices in the region has left a sizable portion of Augustans who drive to other airports where fares are cheaper, said Bill Rathert, vice president of the Minneapolis-based aviation consulting company Kiehl Hendrickson.
The Augusta airport is losing 23.6 percent of local residents to Atlanta and 9.1 percent to Columbia, according to the $15,000 study, which Mr. Rathert presented to members of the aviation commission, local business leaders and elected officials Tuesday morning.
The study was based on a sampling of tickets purchased from area travel agencies in October.
As a result of the high ticket prices, passenger levels at Augusta's airport have decreased steadily since 1993.
"Things are not going in your direction," Mr. Rathert said. "You've got everything going for you on that death spiral. The only thing is you're still high enough, that with some positive change, you can turn the thing around."
It's a harsh assessment, but aviation commissioners said the report doesn't contain anything they haven't already heard.
"Right now, the community's very skeptical that anything's going to happen," aviation commission Chairwoman Marcie Wilhelmi said.
"But I'm pleased with Kiehl Hendrickson; we can feel things changing quickly," she said.
But ticket prices won't start changing until the airport brings in another airline to compete with Delta Air Lines' dominance, Mr. Rathert said.
"Basically, Delta owns this market, and they know it," he said. "The only thing that lowers fares is competition."
Through its two wholly owned subsidiaries, Atlantic Southeast Airlines and ComAir, Delta controls 77 percent of the flights leaving Augusta. US Air, the only other carrier at the airport, holds 9 percent of the market.
In comparison, Columbia Metropolitan Airport, where passenger levels have steadily increased during recent years, provides service on five carriers.
The competition has meant lower ticket prices and more nonstop flights, including ones to New York, Washington and Chicago - cities Mr. Rathert said were essential to add to Augusta's service.
"We have become a lot more aggressive in our marketing of this airport and the area to the airlines," said Lynn Douglass, director of marketing for the Columbia airport.
That's the same plan needed to make the Augusta airport competitive, Mr. Rathert said.
The top pick for recruiting is Continental Airlines, he said, which could provide direct service to New York.
Mr. Rathert said that, with the support of the local business community and airport officials, he is confident a new airline would be in place by the end of the year.
The report concluded that if these steps are taken, the airport has the potential to increase its annual passenger count to as many as 350,000 - a significant change from its current count of about 200,000 passengers a year.
Reach Vicky Eckenrode at (706) 823-3227.
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