Originally created 01/24/04

Passenger increase is first in four years



Augusta Regional Airport officials were flying high Friday after an analysis of the airport's 2003 boarding passenger numbers showed a yearly increase for the first time in four years.

"We have a very good story to tell this year," said Kathryn Solee, a spokeswoman for the airport.

Ms. Solee said the year was capped off with a December boarding passenger number that marked the first monthly increase - a 24 percent spike - compared with the previous year's month since December 2000, when Delta pulled its mainline operation from the airport.

"It (2003) ended absolutely terrifically," Ms. Solee said.

According to the recently released figures, 162,946 passengers boarded an airplane at Augusta Regional in 2003. That was a 10 percent increase over 2002 - a year that had 147,951 passengers.

"I'm just happy and thrilled," said Cedric Johnson, the chairman of the Augusta Aviation Commission, after learning of 2003's figures Friday. "I think a lot of people, staff and board members, are doing everything we can to get the numbers up so we can hopefully attract a low-cost carrier."

Ms. Solee said she believes 2003's figures increased, in part, because of the addition of Continental Express flights to Augusta in March.

She said ticket prices at Augusta Regional also became more competitive with Atlanta and Columbia shortly after airport officials met with Continental officials and discussed high prices in Augusta.

Ms. Solee also credited another change for the increase.

"I think our economy being better plays a role," she said.

The airport's figures had been on a downward slope since 1999 - numbers that only worsened with the loss of the Delta main line and the Sept. 11 attacks, Ms. Solee said.

The increase in 2003 wasn't only indicative of Augusta Regional, though.

"We are part of a national trend," Ms. Solee said, adding that her challenge is now to keep passenger numbers high.

"I don't know if we can hold 10 percent growth for the whole year (in 2004)," she said. "I would certainly like to see low double-digit growth for the next few months through April."

She said the outcome will determine a lot for Augustans, noting that the airport receives federal grants partly based on its passenger number.

"Ticket tax dollars coming back to this airport are jobs to this community," she said.

Boarding passenger numbers for Augusta Regional Airport:

1997 - 206,171

1998 - 218,541, 6 percent increase

1999 - 209,892, 4 percent decrease

2000 - 206,397, 1.6 percent decrease

2001 - 166,537, 19 percent decrease

2002 - 147,951, 11 percent decrease

2003 - 162,946, 10 percent increase

Reach Preston Sparks at (706) 828-3904 or preston.sparks@augustachronicle.com.