AUGUSTA, GA (WJBF) These are exciting times at Augusta Regional Airport. The airport is getting a multi-million dollar grant to help fund growth and improvements. Herbert Judon is the executive director. He talks to The Means Report about what the future holds at Augusta Regional. Enjoy our interview, and be sure to watch The Means Report Monday afternoons at 12:30 on NewsChannel 6.

You know, we had a story earlier this week on the Augusta Regional Airport. It was about Masters preparations, and I thought, “You know what? I have several questions about Augusta Regional.” So many things are going on out there. And so I thought it was high time to bring the executive director of Augusta Regional to the set of “The Means Report.” He is Herbert Judon, and, Herbert, thank you so much for taking the time to be with us, and thanks for leading the way at our airport.

Yeah, thank you for having me. It’s exciting times.

It is. So what about Masters? I know that’s something that probably starts the day after last year’s tournament ends. Are y’all ready for the tournament in a few weeks?

We are. We are in the midst right now of final preparation. So for Masters, everything gets bigger. So, you know, we’re acquiring more personnel to support our different operations, rental cars, working with the airlines, food service, everything you can think about, it gets bigger, and it gets more highlighted doing the Masters.

So what extra flights do we have? How many more have we added, and are we bringing bigger planes in that week?

Yeah, we will be. Both airlines that service Augusta have announced additional service. So we’ll be providing service from cities such as New York, Miami, Philadelphia, Boston, Phoenix, Detroit and other cities.

Wow.

So, yeah, it’s really exciting. And larger airplanes as well.

So we can go from Augusta to there and from there to Augusta that week.

Absolutely, and that’s one of the points I’ve really been trying to communicate to the locals is this is a great opportunity for you to literally get outta town and catch a direct flight to places maybe that we don’t typically go. So a great opportunity.

It is a great opportunity. I just love it. How does that work? Do the airlines just know that it’s Masters week, and they call, and they say, “Look, Herbert, we’re adding these flights,” or do you have to send them numbers to justify them making those additions and say, “Look, we’ll fill your planes up. Please give us X number.” Who makes that decision, you or the airlines?

It’s somewhat of a mutual. I mean, I’m constantly talking with the airlines throughout the year, so their route-planning people, we will discuss not only Masters service, but service throughout the year. But the airlines really focus on, and I’ll use American Airlines for example. Most of the cities that will be servicing Augusta for the Masters are cities where they have hub operations or they have focus cities. So cities where they already have a huge presence and also cities that they’ve historically had demand coming into the Masters, and they’ve had profitability from those cities as well.

All right, so let’s look beyond the Masters in just the overall state of affairs at the airport. You all recently got a $3 million grant. I think it was from the FAA. How will y’all use that money, and how might we as passengers/customers notice it?

Yeah, so the grant that we received recently is called the ATP, or Airport Terminal Program. And it’s part of the bipartisan infrastructure law that provides moneys for airports to build up infrastructure. So we’re gonna use this money to help us fund what we’re calling the gates three and four rehabilitation. And it’s kind of a fancy terminology for a slight terminal expansion. So the terminal will expand, if you’re familiar where the glass windows are on the eastern portion of the terminal, that area there will be moved out. So we’ll add a minimal amount of square footage, about 2,000 square feet. But the bigger thing that this project does, the way that the building was initially configured several years ago, it was configured to allow for walkout and ground boarding onto the aircraft, and we don’t do that anymore. Most of those airplanes, those propeller-driven airplanes that were in the airline fleets several years ago have retired. So the bigger benefit of this project, it encloses the building, and it allows us to put two additional passenger boarding bridges in. So it helps modernize and professionalize our operation.

Yeah, so those days of walking across the tarmac are over.

Yes, sir, absolutely. So we’re excited about that.

I think, you know, just not to go off on a tangent here, but it was always interesting if you were flying into Augusta from say somewhere that’s really cold, and then you would get off the plane right there and there’d be that hot thick southern heat waiting for you as soon as you de-boarded, de-planed. Let me ask you about the passenger experience. How focused are y’all on that? Is it just more about, get on your plane, leave, please fly back here, or do you want the whole experience inside your airport to be pleasant?

Yeah, we want everything to be pleasant. Customer service is a focus. One of the highlights that I’d like to talk about, we started a program called PALs, or Passenger Assistance Liaisons, about five years ago. And these are actually customer service personnel that are in the terminal, and they’ll help you, any questions that you have, or if you need wheelchair assist. So that’s just one example of the emphasis that we put in customer service. And we work with our employees and our tenants all the time, and customer service and making that experience is important. We understand, especially as a smaller airport, and as an airport aspiring to grow, that the customer experience is critical. We want people to have a good experience and to comeback and ultimately help us grow.

How long before our flight takes off do you want us in there for that passenger experience to be maximized? Like, you know, ’cause your ticket or your email may say one thing, and the passenger’s like, “Oh, no, I’m an airport veteran. I can show up 10 minutes before my flight. I got this. I know those TSA people.” Tell us what’s a perfect time to arrive before your flight leave?

Our official is two hours.

Two hours?

But in reality, you can get into Augusta just safely in about an hour and a half, and some people even cut it closer, to be honest with you, ’cause it is an easy transition to get to the airplane. But we do warn people that the airlines typically will cut off boarding at 30 minutes. So even if you are in the terminal, if you haven’t acquired your boarding pass, you’ll be cut off at 30 minutes. So that’s important to know.

People hate to wait, all right? They hate, you know, for there to be delays, for their flight not to be there yet. How much control does Augusta Regional have over that? Or are arrivals and departures totally the airlines’ deal?

Primarily the airlines, but there are also things that the airport can do, and so for example, we talked about passenger boarding bridges or equipment that we have that is tied into the airline operations. So I think what we can do in term, we can do things such as ensuring that equipment and ensuring that the throughput nodes and everything are up to specification.

Okay, that makes sense. Gotcha there. What about the parking situation? Are you okay with things parking-wise at Augusta Regional? Any plans in that area?

Yeah, obviously, we have all surface parking, and if you come to the airport, you may notice that the parking oftentimes is pretty tight. So part of our capital plan is to add an additional 150 surface parking spaces. So we’re in the early stages of that, and we anticipate to see those spaces probably late next year or early in 2024.

Why is the parking lot so full? It amazes me every time I go to the airport, your parking lot is full. What are these people doing? Is Augusta just a place where people come and go a lot? Are these leisure travelers? Is it mostly business? What kind of a guidance can you give us?

Yeah, I think it’s just reflective, again, of local users that are using the airport, and it’s a mix of both of business and leisure travelers. But, yes, people definitely leave their cars. So we like that.

Hey, do people still get stuck in Atlanta? That’s the big, you know, myth I guess, or myth or there’s truth to it. I mean, where you say, “Look, it’s difficult to fly there, fly home because sometimes, you know, when I get to the Atlanta part of my trip, I’m stuck.” What do you hear along those lines?

That can happen. And I’ve heard those stories too in the past. You asked the question earlier about delays, and so there’s acts of nature, obviously. You know, there’s weather, and there could be maintenance things. There are things that happen from time to time, and these things are sometimes beyond out control. But from a reliability standpoint, we do get statistics, and the airlines are well above 95% reliability in and out of Augusta. So it’s few and far between that that happens, but those things can’t happen beyond our control.

Do y’all have any job openings right now for job seekers out there?

Absolutely. And not only with the airport, but also, you know, we’ve got tenants, you know, such as the airlines and concessionaires and other things. So absolutely, there’s always opportunities.

Do y’all get any support from tax dollars? Kind of give us a feel for how the whole airport works. How do you get the money to keep going, and does the city of Augusta, Richmond County have a role in that?

Yeah, so the airport itself is owned by the county, the local government, which most airports are owned by a local government or an airport authority. But the airport runs what is called an enterprise. So we run as literally a business. So a lot of the different lines of business at the airport, you mentioned car parking and aircraft parking, fuel sales, concessionaires, those are some examples of business lines that we have that ultimately run our operation. We receive no general fund tax money. We are recipients of grants from the federal government. So we get what’s called entitlement grants every year, and we can compete for discretionary grants so that this grant program helps us with our capital program, but we’re self-sustaining in terms of our day-to-day operation.

Well, I’ll tell you what, there’s no better feeling, you know, I mentioned fly there, fly home, than to wrap up a trip at Augusta Regional and walk to your own car and leave. I’m not about that drive to Atlanta or Charlotte. I just wanna be back in my town, and I love that about it, the airport. I think it’s a really wonderful positive experience. So thanks for that.

Yeah, thank you.

We appreciate it. Herbert Judon, I hope you’ll come back and talk more about goings on at the airport ’cause there’s a lot to talk about. Exciting times for sure.

Yeah, thank you. Thank you for having me.