By Meg Mirshak
Augusta Regional Airport is tweaking its operations during the annual Masters Tournament to disperse private aircraft to nearby airports and alleviate parking shortages.
In recent years, the demand for aircraft parking at Augusta Regional has exceeded the number of available parking spots, airport officials say, forcing air traffic control to redirect flights to other landing sites. The new operations plan coordinates with Daniel Field, Thomson-McDuffie Regional and Aiken Municipal airports to better utilize the combined parking capacity.
“When we run out of ramp space and we cannot park any more and there are 15 airplanes lined up for landing, they have to go somewhere,” said Bill Thompson, director of aircraft services at Augusta Regional.
The plan, which is not finalized, could require visitors to reserve flight slots at Augusta Regional’s general aviation terminal on a first-come, first-served basis, Thompson said. By knowing the number of incoming flights, airport personnel could better prepare for parking.
Aircraft landing at Augusta Regional range from two-seat planes to large, high-speed business jets. The number of parking spots for each size would be determined in advance, Thompson said. The airport reaches capacity at 140 to 150 aircraft, depending on wing size.
Aiken and Thomson-McDuffie can accommodate more aircraft than they already have landing during Masters Week, Thompson said.
Becky Shealy, marketing director for Augusta Aviation, the operator of Daniel Field, said the new plan would help fill Daniel Field’s parking spaces, which have been underutilized.
“We can take some of that traffic that goes to (Augusta Regional) here,” Shealy said. “We’ve never run out of parking spaces.”
Daniel Field has the shortest runway of the area airports as well as other landing limitations that prevent some large aircraft from using it, Shealy said.
Augusta Regional is also implementing an increase in fuel prices during Masters Week, another factor that could help redirect some airplanes, Thompson said. Prices will rise from $1.50 to $2 per gallon. Aircraft that do not refuel must pay a ramp fee.
Many aircraft are parking for the entire week rather than dropping passengers and baggage and returning later in the week to retrieve them, Thompson said. Encouraging return trips and quicker turnarounds would help free up parking space.
The Federal Aviation Administration allows aircraft to land in five-minute intervals during the tournament. The airport, however, isn’t asked if it has room to park the planes, Thompson said.
Ground stops started at Augusta Regional on Tuesday of this year’s Masters. In past years, the problem arose closer to the weekend, he said.
During a ground stop, air traffic control instructs flights in the air to redirect their aircraft. Many of those planes end up landing at Daniel Field, Aiken, Thomson or Columbia airports when they have arranged for cars and food at Augusta Regional, Thompson said.
“The guys in the back of these airplanes are sometimes the sponsors of Augusta National’s Masters Tournament and they’re also CEOs,” he said. “They call the governor and they call the mayor and say ‘I can’t land at your airport. Why?’ ”
The region’s four airports will jointly publicize the changes and help encourage customers to better utilize space, said Diane Johnston, marketing director of Augusta Regional.