Along Came Baton Rouge

When Katrina hit, officials were already hot on revitalization — that was then.

BATON ROUGE — The citizens of this genteel community in the center of the Louisiana oil patch had their future turned upside down by a hurricane. It became Baton Refuge — to relief efforts, to refugees, to those passing through. In a time of regional desperation, along came the community of Baton Rouge, the place some 80 miles north of New Orleans where many came for help, and stayed. Estimates say that as many as 100,000 newcomers never left. Just as the community tried to absorb them then, it continues to integrate a population base that dropped in overnight. Central to that, of course, has been the airport. As with the city, there are two histories of Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport — pre-Katrina and post-Katrina. Already in the midst of a reconstruction program when the hurricane hit, the airport has responded aggressively to meet the needs of its growing customer base. Its priorities: focus on customer service and on keeping charges to the airlines low. Oh, and being prepared for another disaster.

Comments airport director Anthony J. Marino, “One of the most notable issues with us is the increase in the enplanements at the airport. After Katrina, we were doing a 106 percent increase. We knew that wasn’t a real number.

“Apartments in Baton Rouge, the condominiums, hotel rooms, houses for sale — all of them were taken. The inventory was depleted. But it didn’t give us any indication of where our traffic was going to level out.

“So we hired one of our consultants, who interviewed 46,000 passengers over a two-week period. We wanted a good review of what is happening to people who are coming through this building.”

Specifically, the airport wanted to know:

  • Have you relocated to Baton Rouge?
  • Has your company moved here?
  • Are you going to continue to fly out of this airport, or is it just a temporary thing?

Comments Marino, “When the information was tabulated, we were going to do about a 35 percent increase in traffic when it leveled out. In fact, right now we’re at a 45.4 percent increase; so, we’re above the number that our own study gave us.

“When you have a 50 percent increase in enplanements, you’re going to have some infrastructure problems that you’ll have to deal with,’ he adds, intended as an understatement.

The airport moved some 1.06 million passengers in 2006.

Growth, airport wide
It’s not only passengers having an impact. Business aviation is up, and cargo is through the roof. Prior to Katrina, the airport was aggressively trying to lure freight and mail, with little success.

Recalls Marino, “FedEx, DHL, Airborne — they all came to the airport and we provided them with temporary facilities. FedEx stayed, and is now flying two Airbus’s and a 727 a day into Baton Rouge. They’re still in New Orleans doing the same business they did there.

“We’d been trying to tell them there’s a market in Baton Rouge; this is a petrochemical market. There’s $600 billion worth of plants on the [Mississippi] river in Baton Rouge. Exxon’s second largest refinery is in Baton Rouge.

“We were doing 800,000 pounds of freight and mail pre-Katrina. Post-Katrina, last year we did 52 million pounds of freight and mail. This year we’re going to go to 55 million pounds.”

Marino says freight has settled down, and FedEx has made a five-year commitment. But the carrier wants more space, and the airport is preparing to issue a request for qualifications to design a second cargo facility.

Total on-airport employment has grown since 2005 from 1,550 employees to 2,600 currently.

Says Marino, “The good news is, freight, cargo, landing weights are all up; enplanements are up — but then there’s infrastructure, and you better meet the needs.”

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