The Athens-Ben Epps Airport was recently awarded a Small Community Air Service Development Program grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation. The $750,000 grant will be used to help recruit new passenger service to a southeast hub city from the airport. Athens-Ben Epps Airport was one of only 18 grant recipients out of 57 applicants and was the only grant recipient in Georgia.
Athens has been without commercial air service since September 2014, when Oregon-based SeaPort Airlines pulled out of its service to Nashville after failing to meet passenger load requirements established as part of the federal Essential Air Service subsidy program. SeaPort was the last in a string of small airlines that had linked Athens-Ben Epps Airport to various airline hubs, but all of those airlines, like SeaPort, had relied on the EAS subsidy and would eventually leave Athens.
"We are excited to have been chosen as a recipient of the Small Community Program grant," Athens-Ben Epps Airport Director Mike Mathews said.
"I am very grateful for all of the support given to us by local officials, the local community, the Airport Authority, and officials at the state and federal levels in preparation for the grant,” he said.
Although the grant is not a guarantee that new passenger service will come to Athens, it does give the airport a strong case with financial backing for efforts to recruit an airline to the Athens-Ben Epps Airport.
"Receiving this grant is a great next step in our ongoing efforts to recruit passenger service to Athens," Airport Authority Chairman Les Shindelman said. "Our application was truly a community effort between the airport staff, Airport Authority, Mayor and Commission, and businesses and organizations in Athens and northeast Georgia. The Small Community Program recognized this strong commitment and, we believe, the right airline for Athens-Ben Epps Airport will appreciate it as well."
The Athens-Clarke County Unified Government, the Classic Center, the Athens Area Chamber of Commerce, and the Athens Convention and Visitors Bureau were formal partners in the application process, while over a dozen area organizations and businesses provided letters of support for the airport as part of the grant.
"The Airport Authority and Airport Director Mike Mathews, in particular, did all the right things to produce an excellent application and earn this grant,” said Athens-Clarke County District 6 Commissioner Jerry NeSmith, who serves on the Air Service Development Study group. "Our consultant, Mead & Hunt, also provided a thorough study of the potential business for an airline and demonstrated our ability to use this grant very effectively to attract and support a commercial service at Athens-Ben Epps Airport."
The grant will be used primarily for revenue guarantees and airport marketing efforts for an airline that decides to come to Athens. Airport officials will meet with several airlines in the coming months and will present them with a market study for the Athens-Ben Epps Airport. If an airline opts to begin new passenger service in Athens, the airline would ultimately decide on what routes they would serve out of Athens.
"Being able to include this grant money in our presentation will give us a strong advantage going into those meetings," Mathews said.
In 2004, the local community passed the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) 2005 program that included a project to replace the old commercial terminal with a new commercial terminal. Dedicated in 2017, the terminal currently houses commercial business and is also used on a daily basis for all air charter operations that come in and out of the airport, including athletic teams.
"The new terminal is a beautiful building that will provide a first-class experience to anyone that comes through it and will accommodate any airline or airlines very comfortably that decide they want to do business at the Athens-Ben Epps Airport," Mathews said.
The TSPLOST 2018 sales tax program for transportation projects and the recently approved SPLOST 2020 sales tax program both also contain additional Airport Capital Improvement projects. Local sales tax revenues through these programs are used as local support funds to leverage state and federal funding opportunities.
The Small Community Air Service Development Program (SCASDP) is a grant program designed to help small communities address air service and airfare issues. It is a separate program from the Essential Air Service (EAS) program that previously helped fund passenger service to Athens-Ben Epps Airport. SCASDP’s eligibility criteria are broader and provide a grant applicant the opportunity to self-identify its air service deficiencies and propose an appropriate solution. EAS is a direct subsidy to air carriers and serves a limited group of eligible applicants.
Athens-Ben Epps is home to Georgia’s first aviator, Ben Epps, and was the first civilian airport in the state, established in 1919. It is a public-use airport with two runways, an air traffic control tower, aircraft rescue and firefighting equipment, a modern commercial passenger terminal, a general aviation terminal, full services and amenities to accommodate nearly any aircraft, and space to expand and improve its facilities in the future.
In Fiscal Year (FY) 2018, Athens-Ben Epps hosted 37,506 aircraft operations; 3,013 passenger enplanements; and 95 aircraft based at the airport.
For more information about the Athens-Ben Epps Airport, visit www.flyahn.com or call 706-613-3420.