SeaPort Airlines chosen as Athens air carrier
By Jim Thompsonupdated Tuesday, October 2, 2012 – 10:28pm
The U.S. Department of Transportation has awarded a two-year Essential Air Service subsidy to Oregon-based SeaPort Airlines for service from Athens-Ben Epps Airport to Nashville International Airport, a major operations center for Southwest Airlines that is also served by Delta, United, American and US Airways.
The Essential Air Service subsidy program was established in the late 1970s, following the deregulation of the airline industry, to ensure that small communities that had regular airline service prior to deregulation could maintain that service. Previous EAS subsidies granted for Athens’ airport provided service to Charlotte, but most recently that service has taken passengers to Atlanta.
The DOT awarded the subsidy, which starts at slightly more than $1.5 million for this fiscal year and will increase to slightly more than $1.6 million next year, on Sept. 28, just two days before the current EAS contract with Georgia Skies was set to end. Georgia Skies did not submit a proposal for the latest EAS subsidy, but is obligated to continue providing service to Atlanta until SeaPort Airlines can establish operations at Athens-Ben Epps Airport.
New federal regulations, noted in the DOT’s announcement that SeaPort had been awarded the federal subsidy, will present some challenges for maintaining EAS service. Under those new regulations, an EAS community must average 10 passengers for each day that service is provided to maintain the subsidy beyond the current fiscal year. According to DOT data, Georgia Skies has averaged 4.8 passengers each day.
Airport director Tim Beggerly said SeaPort is working now to set up its local service to Nashville. In a meeting with airport officials a few weeks prior to the DOT award of the EAS subsidy, SeaPort representatives indicated that they could have service set up at the Athens airport within days of the DOT decision.
According to the proposal presented by SeaPort to local airport officials, fares to Nashville will range from $59 to $149, depending on the advance purchase and refund options chosen by travelers. SeaPort will fly the Cessna Caravan, a single-engine turboprop, nine-passenger aircraft with two pilots, into and out of the Athens airport.
SeaPort will offer 12 weekly round trips to Nashville, with departures from Athens at 6:30 a.m. excluding Sundays and 3 p.m. excluding Saturdays, and departures from Nashville at 8:30 a.m. excluding Sundays and 4:30 p.m. excluding Saturdays.
Founded in 1982 as Wings of Alaska, SeaPort Airlines was acquired four years ago by SeaPort Air Group. It averages 85 daily departures in eight states, according to information presented to Athens airport officials.
In selecting SeaPort Airlines over the three other carriers that submitted proposals for the EAS contract in Athens, the DOT rejected an option presented by SeaPort that would have offered 12 weekly round trips to Charlotte and six weekly round trips to Nashville, with a subsidy of slightly more than $1.6 million in the first year and a subsidy of almost $1.7 million in the second year. In explaining that decision, the DOT notes in its announcement of the EAS subsidy award that the “core objective of the EAS program is to connect smaller communities to the national transportation system, and SeaPort’s two round trips a day to Nashville fully meet that objective.”
The DOT announcement goes on to note that the modest increase requested for the Charlotte route means SeaPort “projects that the service (to Charlotte) could operate at nearly break-even levels. Given that, and the community’s support for that service, we encourage the community to work diligently with the carrier to mitigate some of the risks of providing” service to Charlotte.
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