Feds pay millions to subsidize air service to Georgia airport

(The Center Square) — The federal government pays millions of dollars annually to subsidize commercial air service at the Macon, Georgia, airport.

The Middle Georgia Regional Airport in Macon receives nearly $4.7 million annually — or more than $19.5 million over four years and two months — as part of the Alternate Essential Air Service program. AEAS is similar to the Essential Air Service program, which Congress created in 1978, except that the money may go to a community instead of directly to an air carrier.

Contour Airlines, based in Smyrna, Tennessee, operates one to two daily flights between Macon and Baltimore/Washington International Airport. In 2021, Macon reported 14,176 enplanements, up by nearly 70% from the 8,341 enplanements in 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but a decrease from 17,109 in 2019 and 15,431 in 2018.

“A couple hundred dollar per passenger airline subsidy is not in the public interest,” Marc Scribner, senior transportation policy analyst for the Reason Foundation, told The Center Square. “Reforming the Essential Air Service would be good for both taxpayers and the environment.

“Macon is just over an hour’s drive from the most frequently traveled airport in the world in Atlanta,” Scribner added. “With Macon and dozens of others, Congress should consider replacing the Essential Air Service … with coach bus feeder service in communities within 150 air miles of a hub airport. This could cut taxpayer costs by more than two-thirds and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by nearly three-quarters.”

According to federal records, the airline operates the service using ERJ-135 aircraft with 30 seats. Contour began serving the Macon airport under an earlier AEAS contract from Aug. 1, 2017, until July 31, 2019, at the nearly $4.7 million annual rate.

“While ticket revenue has exceeded expectations, fuel prices and other operational expenses have continued to increase in the more than three years since our application for AEAS was submitted,” Macon said in a 2019 application to extend the initial contract. “Our request to extend the grant agreement will lock into place our current per flight subsidy for an additional four years making Macon one of the few EAS communities to avoid an increase in year over year funding for a period of seven years.”

Contour’s current contract runs from Aug. 1, 2019, until Sept. 30, 2023. According to the airline’s website, flights are “public charters operated by Corporate Flight Management Inc. d/b/a Contour Airlines as the indirect and direct air carrier.”

The Macon funding is one of 111 federally subsidized air contracts nationwide, totaling more than $340 million.

Delta Air Lines previously served the airport until 2008. Silver Airlines served the Macon airport but left in 2014, and Georgia Skies operated flights between Macon and Atlanta from 2008 to 2013.

Although “the true purpose of an EAS contract is to transport passengers to/through a major hub airport, such as ATL, it is apparent that this approach has not been successful for the Community,” the airport wrote in its 2016 EAS application. “Airlines in ATL and other nearby hub airports are unwilling to offer ‘code shares’ routes with most EAS carriers.”

According to the Georgia Department of Transportation, Athens-Ben Epps Airport previously had an EAS-backed service. The Classic City lost its service in 2014 because its passenger volume fell below 10 passengers per day, the required volume for EAS funding.

This article was published by The Center Square and is republished here with permission. Click here to view the original.

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