NEW ORLEANS — In a relatively quiet announcement this spring, the National Business Aviation Association, in an August 26 press release announced that “it has made the difficult decision to move its 2008 Annual Meeting & Convention from New Orleans to Orlando.” For the people who make Lakefront Airport run, it was a blow. The light at the end of the rebuilding tunnel had been turned off, abruptly. No matter — people here are moving on, and happy that things are now moving. The tower is operational, the bulkheads have been repaired and reinforced, and now it’s all about getting things built. Two fixed base operators will soon begin reconstruction and the tower and terminal will be revitalized, now that the drawn-out permitting process comes to a close and resources become available. The message is this: We’re up and running and soon to be fully operational — just give us a year to pretty it up.
NBAA, apparently, had its doubts. Lakefront Airport, of course, rests as a man-made outgrowth into Lake Pontchartrain, at the mouth of the Mississipi River. When Hurricane Katrina hit on August 29, 2005, they became one, parts of a bigger whole — the Gulf of Mexico. The airport facilities were dessimated; however, much of the airfield was intact, once the water subsided.
For NBAA, Lakefront Airport has a positive history as the host for the Static Display of business aircraft during past conventions held here. That included 2001, when NBAA was last held here, in what became an abbreviated version of the show following the 9/11 attacks.
Comments Addie Funquy, a New Orleans native who is general manager of the Million Air FBO, “They really wanted to be here. I understand their concerns.
“It would be a helluva shot in the arm for the city. We should be way ahead of where we are; we’re still too far behind. It’s been frustrating for us because it’s cost us a lot of money with all the bureaucracy that’s been going on.
“I think we’re over the hump now. Contracts are starting to go out to take care of the rest of the infrastructure for the airport.”
Pierre Villere, 28, a pilot who has opened a new FBO, Flightline First, comments that the NBAA announcement is understandable, but adds, “It wasn’t well-publicized.
“I’m hoping they will revisit that decision and bring the convention in subsequent years. As it stands today, we’re not there yet. They can’t base their decisions on a ‘maybe.’”
Getting to the infrastructure
New Orleans Lakefront Airport director Randolph W. “Randy” Taylor estimates that the total damage to the airport and its businesses was in the $80-100 million range from Katrina. Only recently, on August 31, was the air traffic tower declared fully operational.
Among the damages:
- $1 million in damage to the airport-owned fuel farm;
- main runway instrument landing system destroyed, and expected to again be operational next spring;
- terminal, tower, and various hangars and offices wiped out but their core structures intact;
- two Million Air hangars destroyed, and recently cleared off;
- major structural damage to the wooden bulkheads that keep the peninsular airport separate from the lake. Comments Taylor, “It had washed out about a 40-foot swath all the way around the airport, about 30 feet deep, behind the floor wall. So the first thing we had to do was fill that in. We used concrete to reinforce the bulkhead and then we packed it with clay.”
Taylor says that alone was a $10 million project, paid with Airport Improvement Program dollars. “The president signed a special one-time allocation,” he explains. “They paid 100 percent of the project. It’s also for new lights, signage, fencing.
“That’s a beautiful wall — if walls can be beautiful.”
FAA is reconstructing the tower to raise the tower itself on top of a new parking garage base, according to Taylor.
Much of the frustration in the rebuilding process, say officials, has been local, with the state and FAA getting strong reviews for their roles post-Katrina. After the storm, the highly political levee boards, one of which is Lakefront’s sponsor, were reorganized, leading to jurisdictional confusion. Permits, it seems, have been harder to get than materials or labor. Equally to blame, they say, has been the battle with the insurance industry, an issue region-wide. Central to that dispute has been what damage was caused by wind versus that caused by water.
With insurance money coming in and permits processed, the airport and two FBOs are preparing for the rebuild. Says Taylor, “I’m spending more of my time on hangars now than anything, to get the hangars up and running. Obviously, my first concentrations were on security, the fencing, the gates.”
Though a Part 139-certificated airport, with its own aircraft rescue and firefighting, the certification is currently suspended.
Service sector investments
When the hurricane hit, there were three FBOs. Atlantic Aviation quickly consolidated its operations at the international airport, and Aviaport subsequently went out of business. Million Air remained, and start-up Firstline Flight is taking over the Aviaport facilities.
Million Air, part of a seven FBO network owned by Cincinnati-based Ken Allison and others, is preparing to break ground on a $5 million FBO facility, including a 25,000-square foot hangar. After insurance, GM Fanquy estimates the company’s investment will be $1.5 million. Two more 25,-000-square foot hangars are planned to meet future growth.
Says Fanquy, “There was never a time when we were thinking about not continuing here. I figure that around February we should be completely functional again, á la pre-Katrina. The turbine business has been good; I actually have more based customers (71 vs. 63), and more turbines than before.”
Frontline First, with a five-year lease with four five-year options, is investing $150,000 beyond what the airport is investing in the facilities. Once renovated, its main FBO facility will include a 20,000-square foot hangar with 10,000 square feet of office. Says president Villere, “Lakefront will come back and be better than it was before. I want to be part of that.”