Jun. 3--GULFPORT -- Battered by Hurricane Katrina, the Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport secured its future with a promise of major recovery money from the federal government.
Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta announced the award of $44 million in grant money to help repair and rebuild the airport's facilities.
"This is the greatest thing that's ever happened to Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport," said Bruce Frallic, the airport's executive director.
The grant more than doubles the disaster relief money given to Mississippi airports and brings the total at this airport aloneto more than $51 million. Other airports have received $31 million.
The passenger terminal, which was being expanded before the storm, suffered significant damage. The old hangar that served as the general aviation facility got hammered, as did the air cargo facility and the rental car facility.
The airport's runway also needs drainage work, and other equipment needs repair. A new control tower twice as tall as the old one will replace the damaged building, which was patched up after the storm.
The facilities are also being relocated, with the military consolidating its operations on the eastern side and general aviation and air cargo facilities moving to the southwest. General aviation will occupy 10 acres, twice its previous area, with the opportunity to expand five more acres. The air cargo facility will grow from 15,000 square feet to 40,000 square feet.
The airport will advertise for bids on the projects later this month. After bids are received in July, administrators hope to begin construction in September. Officials hope projects can be completed in 16 to 18 months.
"This grant will help lay the foundation for the Gulfport-Biloxi airport of tomorrow," said Mineta.
Sen. Trent Lott called the Department of Transportation the most responsive of all federal agencies. He and Rep. Gene Taylor, whom he introduced as a "fellow member of the Slab Owners Association," along with Sen. Thad Cochran form the congressional delegation that drew a mention from Mineta.
"They don't play zone; they play man-to-man," Mineta said. "We feel the pressure every day."
The airport is busier now than it was before Katrina, with available seats on flights at 105 percent of pre-storm levels with flights at about 80 percent capacity. When AirTran restores nonstop service to two Florida destinations on or before the one-year anniversary of Katrina, it will add about 10 percent more seats.
"Welcome back," said FAA Administrator Marion Blakey, who grew up in Tupelo. "No one's surprised that you are."