Gulfport-Biloxi Airport Thriving Post-Katrina

The Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport did more than survive Katrina's 150 mph winds for eight hours; it has thrived since the storm ravaged the facility that at the time was in the midst of a $50 million expansion project.

That was the message brought to the Greater Slidell Area Chamber of Commerce recently by Bruce Frallic, executive director of the airport. Frallic stressed that it is a message important to the people of St. Tammany as "more than 15 percent of the cars in our parking lot are from here."

Though the airport was among the Gulf Coast properties devastated by Hurricane Katrina, the facility had regained more than 100 percent of its pre-Katrina seats by 2006. Airport passengers are expected to double to 1 million by 2010.

Included among that passenger boom since Katrina have been hundreds of thousands of volunteers, vendors and professionals flying to the Gulf Coast to do their part in post-Katrina rebuilding efforts. Seventy percent of the passengers are business people; 30 percent, leisure travelers. That is a positive trend, up from 55 percent business travelers versus 45 percent leisure travelers pre-Katrina.

"The good news is that all the people who have come to help in this entire area, they've all become stakeholders," Frallic said. "They're going to come back. They want to see the fruits of their labor."

Development in the area that also is expected to impact airport business includes the construction of about 8,000 casino/resort rooms, which translates to 150 annual passengers per room; and projected 5,000 condominium units, which carries an estimated return of 80 passengers per room.

The airport is halfway through its Katrina-derailed $50 million expansion. "We're back on track. We just lost some time," he said.

The projected opening date of the expanded facility, which will increase the airport's square footage from 92,000 to 165,000 square feet and boost the passenger capacity from 1 million to 2.4 million, is mid-2007.

"We're going to open it piece by piece because we need the space," he said.

Additionally, current construction projects include a $33 million air cargo facility; $22 million general aviation facility; $6 million rental car facility; and $14 million in terminal upgrades. Also on tap are $8 million on airfield improvements; $15 million for a new parking deck; $16 million on roads and structures; $30 million for a new tower; and $29 million for noise easement.

"It's going to be a nice partnership for years to come," said Danny Schaus, chairman of the chamber's board of directors.

Upcoming chamber events include an East Meets West Luncheon on Feb. 1 that will provide "The Vision of the Future in Southern Louisiana." This LA Speaks meeting will be held at 11:30 a.m. at The Gallery, 137 Taos St., Slidell.The cost is $25 for members and $30 for nonmembers. Jan. 29 is the reservation deadline.

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