Originally created 03/31/04

Continental addition pays off



In the year since Continental Express landed at Augusta Regional Airport, officials said, there has been a mostly positive combination of increases and decreases.

Augusta Aviation Commission Chairman Cedric Johnson said the competition resulting from the airline's presence has lowered fares for all three airlines at Augusta Regional and that the number of choices available to travelers has increased dramatically.

Before Continental, Augusta had nonstop service only to Atlanta and Charlotte.

"Having Continental here has done what we hoped, which would be to bring down overall prices," Mr. Johnson said.

Commission members helped lure Continental to the Garden City, in part, by launching a travel bank account that raised more than $500,000 from individuals and businesses committed to buying Continental tickets.

"(The idea was) to let Continental know the citizens of the CSRA were interested in bringing them here," Mr. Johnson said.

Continental officially began offering nonstop flights to Houston and Newark, N.J., on March 3, 2003. The first month of service was considered a success by airport officials, with Kathryn Solee, the marketing director of Augusta Aviation, indicating that the 16 percent increase in flight volume was largely a result of Continental's presence.

She also credited Continental with helping the airport increase its boarding passenger figure at the end of 2003 to the highest level in four years and bringing in an annual profit.

However, Continental has struggled with a low number of business travelers. Dave Hilfman, the vice president of sales and reservations for Continental, who attended an Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce meeting in July to issue a call for more business travel.

Ten days after the meeting, Continental offered reduced business fares to better compete with Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

Mr. Johnson said a study contracted by the commission showed that price was a factor but that departure times from Augusta also are not early enough for business travelers.

"People have indicated that they arrive too late in the morning to attend meetings, and it often causes them to spend an extra day there," he said.

The commission is working to change that, Mr. Johnson said.

Rahsaan Johnson, a spokesman for Continental, acknowledged that the "disproportionately low" number of business travelers continues to be a problem.

"It's ultimately not good for Augusta," he said.

He also said Continental sees "no need to do anything differently."

In the near future, he anticipates that the airline will continue to offer two flights a day to Houston and Newark.

Reach Dena Levitz at (706) 823-3339 or dena.levitz@augustachronicle.com.