Consultants in the middle of planning Augusta Regional Airport's future growth expect more than 500,000 people a year will be using the airport in 20 years.
But there was no easy formula for convincing the entire Augusta Aviation Commission at the board's monthly meeting Thursday that figure was realistic.
In one of the only publicly contentious meetings this year, aviation commissioners squared off over how many passengers to include in the airport's master plan.
When it is completed this summer, the master plan - which is being prepared by the airport consulting group Black & Veatch Corp. - will map out the airport's future development and recommend the best use of grounds and facilities.
The consultants presented the commission with three scenarios to predict how passenger levels will grow. The results varied between about 400,000 and 730,000 passengers annually passing through Augusta Regional by the year 2020.
In the end, a majority of eight commissioners voted to accept the consultants' high-end figure, which is based on a low-cost carrier one day coming to Augusta.
Those commissioners, including the board's chairwoman Marcie Wilhelmi, argue that there is nothing wrong with planning for the best-case scenario because it is just on paper.
"Why bother with a plan if you're planning for the status quo?" Ms. Wilhelmi said.
The four commissioners who voted against using the number called the figure overly optimistic.
"I thought we ought to be much more conservative in the numbers we project," Whitney O'Keeffe said. "That's why I'm looking at the historical numbers and not some assumption numbers."
Last year, about 200,000 people used the airport.
The most conservative model of growth predicts 385,000 people will use the airport in 20 years.
That figure is based on the area's expected population growth and the state's estimations for Augusta Regional's growth.
The figure accepted Thursday comes from studies that the consultants did on other cities where low-fare carriers such as Southwest Airlines or Air Tran have come in and heavily increased passenger levels by driving down ticket prices.
Although representatives from Southwest and Air Tran have told airport officials they have no plans to move to Augusta, Ms. Wilhelmi said it was selling the airport short not to expect a similar carrier to start service in Augusta in the future.
Others disagreed with planning around possibilities.
"It would be putting the cart before the horse," aviation Commissioner Ed McIntyre said. "Let's get the airlines out there; let's get some more enplanements."
Both sides of the voting table were quick to separate the heated discussion from ones that often characterized the board last year.
"I appreciate the dialogue," said Bernie Silverstein, the board's vice chairman. "I haven't seen this in a long time."
Reach Vicky Eckenrode at (706) 823-3227.
Airport consultants presented the Augusta Aviation Commission with three possibilities of how passenger levels will grow in the next 20 years.
Passenger level for 2000: 201,921
Possible passenger levels for 2020:
385,000: Based on population growth and no changes in the airport's air service
570,000: Based on leakage studies that show the airport can retain more passengers if other airlines start service
730,000: Based on increases experienced at other cities where a low-fare carrier has started service
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