July 5, 2008

Worries Arise Over Future Air Service

By Lindsey Adkison, The Brunswick News, Ga.

Jul. 5--It's no secret that the airline industry is facing a future of tough choices and decisions.

With fuel prices climbing ever higher, carriers are desperately searching for ways to lower costs.

In addition to charging for checking baggage and snacks, airlines are looking to pull service from smaller airports, a move that could prove devastating to less populated communities like Brunswick and the Golden Isles.

And that worries officials -- so much so that they are reacting to a study published by the Business Travel Coalition that says 150 airports could be without air service within the next six months.

Brunswick, served by only Atlantic Southeast Airline, was not among airports the coalition speculated could lose service , but Georgia airports like Columbus Metropolitan, Augusta Regional Bush Field and Savannah/Hilton Head International were. Just because Brunswick Golden Isles Airport was missing from the list doesn't necessarily mean it's safe.

Delta Air Lines, which controls the ASA commuter schedule between Brunswick and Atlanta, announced in June that it plans to cut 13 percent of its domestic flights in the fall. Currently, ASA operates three flights a day, four days a week out of Brunswick. It also has two flights a day the other three days.

To further arouse concerns, a campaign by the Glynn County Airport Commission, which operates the Brunswick airport, to land a second airline has stalled. Its primary prospect, U.S. Airways, is now cutting domestic flights.

It is more than just a matter of convenience to be serviced by a major airline. It's vital to economic growth of the area, officials say.

Nathan Sparks, executive director of the Brunswick Golden Isles Development Authority, says that having access to an airport is a huge factor when encouraging businesses to move to the area.

"Without a doubt, commercial air service is vital to our continued economic growth," he said. "In fact, we've found that commercial air service is often an important differentiator when businesses and industries compare Brunswick with similar communities that have no air service.

"Companies want the assurance that they can get key customers and business associates into the market quickly. A one-and-a-half-hour drive from another airport makes a big difference when time is money."

Sparks says the authority is taking steps to aid the airport commission in its efforts to keep ASA serving the airport.

Steve Brian, executive director of the airport commission, is staying positive. Ridership has increased at double digit rates the past six to eight months.

And while he says the commission is concerned, he notes that Delta currently has no plans to make changes to the Brunswick market. Nevertheless, to make sure it stays that way, he and others plan to travel to Washington, D.C., to discuss possible solutions with federal officials.

"Of course, we're concerned about Brunswick, but it would be an economic development setback for the entire state to have little or no air transportation to rural cities," Brian said. "We have just started talking to state officials about possibilities if service is reduced or eliminated to a number of cities in the state."

Brian says that the commission is also developing alternative approaches to maintaining air service by communicating with Delta/ASA and other carriers. The airport commission has been looking for carriers to provide more service to Brunswick for the last two years.

"As the airline industry recognizes, a new model of service will need to be produced to cope with the fuel crisis," Brian said.

"We have spoken to a number of carriers that are interested, but the type of aircraft they would use or their connection to major hubs/carriers has not been ideal," he said.


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