LAFAYETTE, LA - Greg Roberts, A.A.E., a retired USAF Lieutenant Colonel, keeps his perspective when asked which is more important, air service development or overall economic development. "My primary focus is and always will be safety," says Roberts. His pragmatism plays well in Cajun country, situated midway between New Orleans and Houston in the Mississippi Basin, in what has historically been oil patch country. Today, the economy is much more diverse, and Roberts sees his airport playing a major role in future development and access to the aviation system. The challenge now is to make it happen.
The region around Lafayette is known as Acadiana, encompassing eight parishes [counties] and a catchment area, according to Roberts, of some 700,000 people. Lafayette itself is a self-sustaining community of some 110,500 residents. An economy once embedded in the oil patch - drilling and servicing the oil industry - is today diversified among oil, health care, retail and distribution, manufacuring, and other industries.
Following 9/11, American Airlines pulled out of Lafayette, and Delta's recent dehubbing at DFW has resulted in a loss of direct service to Dallas, although Delta did add a third daily flight to Atlanta. That recent news follows a year in which Lafayette Regional Airport saw a 4 percent increase in enplanements, at 166,945. In spite of today's topsy/turvy airline environment, Roberts remains optimistic about the potential for his airport.
"I believe the airport in Lafayette, LA, can support a substantial enplanement number ? 250,000 to 300,000. We're retaining about 40 percent of the people who should fly Lafayette; another 40 percent are choosing to fly New Orleans; another 20 percent are flying other places. If we can cut into that by half, that's an additional 130,000 passengers. Right there, you're looking at 300,000."
Roberts has his air service challenges. New Orleans, 120 miles to the east, is served by all the major low-fare carriers. Houston to the west has Continental; Baton Rouge, 60 miles away, offers American Airlines direct to DFW.
"Very realistically, we can support hub and spoke operations," says Roberts. "How many airlines to how many hubs is a question mark, especially when you have the reality of the good surface transportation we have to some major hubs."
"There's money to be made out of Lafayette, with the right equipment and the right pricing. We're in the art of war here; we're living it. It's a dollars and cents issue." Roberts is coordinating his efforts with various other economic development initiatives locally, in an effort to ultimately build air service and cargo. The airport is currently served by UPS and FedEx.
Federal, local assistance
Roberts has applied for and been granted $240,000 over three years under the Small Community Air Service Development program. That money, he explains, is being matched with equal $60,000 contributions from the Lafayette Economic Development Authority, the Lafayette Convention and Visitors Center, the State of Louisiana, and the Lafayette Regional Airport Commission.
"The principal driver is to hire a marketing director to encourage people to support their hometown airport by advertising what we have here, on a very focused basis," says Roberts. "That is, making appointments with the Top 100 in our community, to impress upon them the importance of flying the hometown airport and how it really affects their lives. And, as a tertiary, to try to get commitments from them toward perhaps establishing a travel bank."
While calling incentives such as travel banks a "slippery slope," Roberts recognizes that there can be advantages to having corporate commitments. "We can ask," he says, "if you've got $500,000 dedicated to travel in 2005, would you be willing to dedicate 'x' number of dollars to an airline that said it would provide service that you were looking for? Lower fares to Houston? Serve another market from Lafayette?"
Roberts is quick to emphasize that general aviation remains the key component of aviation operations ? a 60/40 split, he calls it. In that split is the headquarters of Petroleum Helicopters, Inc. (PHI), a global rotary services provider. "Of the time allocated for business development, it's a 60/40 split on commercial air service versus general aviation," he says.
The two fixed base operations at Lafayette Regional - Lafayette Aero, Inc., and Paul Fournet Air Service - both have leaseholds that expire in 2007, according to Roberts, and he foresees changes coming on the FBO side. One indication: a current proposal calls for merging the two FBOs.
A recently completed master plan update indicates the airport is targeting the right goals: air service; cargo; economic development; and, FBO upgrades.