Originally created 10/30/04

Carrier departs from Augusta today



Today Continental Express will say goodbye to the Garden City, more than likely never to return.

After a mere 18 months of service, the nation's second-largest airline is pulling the plug, leaving Augusta Regional Airport with only two carriers - US Airways and Delta subsidiary Atlantic Southeast Airlines.

Continental spokesman Rahsaan Johnson acknowledged that anything's possible but said he doubts the carrier will come back, or if it does, a return isn't anticipated for three years.

"It's not going to happen in 2005 because our airplanes are already committed elsewhere," he said. "And unless there's a huge population growth or a big change in passenger numbers at Atlanta or Columbia - neither of which are likely - we won't be coming back in 2006."

If the time does come there's no guaranteed formula to persuade Continental to come back, but he said if Augusta leaders can demonstrate there's been growth in the business travel segment, it might help.

"Then we'll just look at the numbers and decide," Mr. Johnson said.

For more than a year, Continental has expressed displeasure with the low number of business passengers, which is the reason cited for pulling service. Figures show the business travel deficiency translated to lower totals from March to September this year - except in April, the month of the Masters Tournament - compared with last year.

Aviation Commission Chairman Cedric Johnson said Continental's flights to Newark, N.J., were not early enough for passengers to fly to New York for the day and return that evening.

"All along, more people would leave Augusta to fly to New York, but Continental thought the opposite would happen," he said. "We need to make sure that (airlines the airport brings in) understand how the market is in Augusta."

Continental's spokesman said officials realized this but did so too late to change the schedule.

"Clearly, we could have done a better job evaluating this. We thought with the schedule offered we would see a level of traffic we just didn't see," Mr. Johnson said. "We worked to come up with a plan to make the service work, but ultimately it didn't."

The announcement two months ago by Continental to cut Augusta out of its network was a bitter pill to swallow, considering residents and businesses had collected $1.2 million as a good-faith gesture to persuade the airline to start up in Augusta. The airport also waived its facility charges for a year.

Woody Merry, who led the two Continental Challenge efforts, said the decision upset him but that he blamed the "incompetent" airport commission.

Mr. Merry said commissioners unjustly fired the Allison Group for a supposed lack of diversity in its commercials and publicly ridiculed marketing director Kathryn Solee, which caused her to quit.

"Continental was happy in Augusta when they were making money, but then they see the ad agency they like being fired and the marketing director they like leave," he said. "I'm mad Continental left ... but how can I blame them?"

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

Augustans will lose a flight to and from Houston and Newark, N.J. The two remaining carriers, ASA and US Airways, only fly back and forth from Charlotte and Atlanta. Airport officials estimate that the loss of Continental will equate to a loss of 10,000 to 15,000 passengers a year to other airports.