Originally created 10/15/02

Augusta airport lands Continental Express



Beginning in March, it could conceivably take less than three hours to get from Tobacco Road to Times Square.

Continental Express announced Monday that it will run two daily flights to Newark, N.J., and two daily flights to Houston starting March 3 - culminating a two-year marketing campaign to bring the airline to Augusta.

Calling the Augusta-Aiken area "dynamic," Dave Hilfman, a vice president for Continental Airlines, made the announcement in Augusta Regional Airport's lobby to about 100 people, including airport executives, aviation commissioners, politicians, reporters, airport staff and a few people waiting for flights.

The news that Continental would offer flights to Newark Liberty International Airport had been expected ever since Continental Challenge II raised $548,000 to help offset the carrier's start-up costs.

When Mr. Hilfman announced that the airline also would fly to George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, aviation commission Chairwoman Marcie Wilhelmi and Continental Challenge II co-chairman Woody Merry exchanged high-fives.

The direct jets to New Jersey and Houston will give Augusta travelers access to flights to all over the world, in addition to competitive prices, more reliable service and an option of avoiding Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport.

Advance-purchase, restricted fares listed Monday started at $210 for a round trip from Augusta to Newark and $260 for a round trip to Houston. Travelocity.com had round-trip tickets to Newark for $294 and to Houston for $344 the weekend of March 7-9 - the first after service begins.

The flight from Augusta to Newark will take about two hours. From there, passengers can catch a New Jersey Transit train to Penn Station in New York, a trip that takes less than half an hour.

While Mr. Hilfman answered reporters' questions, aviation commissioners huddled to the side and voted unanimously to spend as much as $1.7 million of the airport's $10 million in financial reserves to build Continental a ticket counter. A new room will be built over what is now a brick patio outside the current ticketing area.

The airport is in the precarious position of having to accommodate its newest airline by upgrading what could become an obsolete facility. Augusta Regional's master plan calls for construction of a terminal within the next five years over what is the airport's crosswind runway.

The current triangular ticketing area is already pressed for space.

"Would it have been proper to welcome a new airline into this place with a shoehorn?" airport Director Ken Kraemer said.

Mr. Kraemer said it would be premature to say the new ticketing area will end up torn down because some new use or new tenant might be found for the old terminal.

WHAT'S NEXT: Augusta Regional Airport will spend as much as $1.7 million of its savings to add a Continental Express ticketing area to the current terminal. The addition is expected to be finished in February, and the flights are to begin March 3.

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or johnny.edwards@augustachronicle.com.