Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport posted record amount of business after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Louisiana-Mississippi coast on Aug. 29, crippling commercial flights at Louis Armstrong International Airport at New Orleans.
While the numbers of passengers, car rentals and restaurant sales has increased dramatically at Metro Airport, perhaps the biggest effect has been the amount of freight and mail the airport handles, now that air-shipping giants FedEx and DHL started new operations in Baton Rouge after the New Orleans airport was crippled.
City-Parish Aviation Director Anthony Marino said he'd tried for years to lure FedEx to Metro Airport, without success.
"Katrina came, and they were forced to come here, and now they like it and want to stay," Marino said.
FedEx has resumed its operations at the New Orleans airport, but Marino said the shipping company is planning to stay in Baton Rouge.
Marino said the Federal Aviation Administration had already allocated $2.1 million to build a new cargo facility at Metro Airport, but recently agreed to expand the grant to $4.8 million.
"The cargo facility we've got out there now is 33,000 square feet, and the one we're going to build is 68,000 square feet," Marino said.
He said airport officials hope to attract two other freight carriers when the new cargo facility is complete.
So far, FedEx, DHL and their subcontractors have brought about 100 jobs to Baton Rouge, he said.
FedEx had been running two flights per day into the local airport, but expanded that to three flights last week. Marino said plans are in the works for FedEx to add a fourth daily flight.
FedEx brought 3.9 million pounds of freight into the Baton Rouge airport during the last four months of 2005 - after Katrina - and flew out 3.9 million pounds. DHL brought in 1.3 million pounds and flew out 1.2 million pounds.
Together, the two cargo operators accounted for about 93 percent of the total 5.6 million pounds of freight that flew into Metro Airport in 2005, and about 98 percent of the 5.2 million pounds that flew out of Baton Rouge last year.
Contrast that with 2004, when 310,397 pounds of freight and cargo came into the Metro Airport, and only 165,529 pounds flew out.
Because FedEx has a contract to transport mail for the U.S. Postal Service, the company's move to Metro Airport has meant a tremendous increase in the amount of mail coming in and going out.
Metro Airport records show that in 2004, only 552 pounds of mail was flown out of Baton Rouge Metro Airport. Marino noted that much of the local mail was being transported to New Orleans, where it was flown out by FedEx.
With the arrival of FedEx in Baton Rouge, the total amount of mail flown out of Metro Airport increased to 721,841 pounds.
FedEx started handling mail at the local airport in December, and flew out 718,885 pounds of mail in one month of operation.
Freight and mail aren't the only categories where business boomed at Metro Airport in the months after Hurricane Katrina.
Passenger counts at Metro Airport for 2005 soared to 523,417, a 93 percent increase over the previous year. About half of the airport's total passenger traffic for 2005 occurred after Hurricane Katrina.
Other economic barometers at the airport also took off as a result of Katrina.
Gross sales reported by Creative Host, the vendor operating the airport restaurants, were almost $1.4 million last year, compared with $751,463 in 2004. The biggest month for the airport restaurants was in September, immediately after Hurricane Katrina, when they did $235,184 in gross sales, an increase of 276 percent over the previous September.
Car rentals totaled $28.1 million in 2005, compared with $11.8 million in 2004. The car-rental companies' biggest month at the airport last year was in October, when their sales were about $7 million. That's a 551 percent increase over October 2004, when car rentals at the local airport were $1.05 million.
Marino is quick to point out that the airport was showing double-digit growth in many of these categories long before Hurricane Katrina wiped out New Orleans.
As an example, he noted that January 2005 airline passenger counts were up by 10.6 percent over the previous January, February 2005 counts were 10 percent over the prior February, and March counts were up 20.7 percent over March 2004.
"So our growth hasn't all been due to Katrina, but obviously, the storm had a huge impact on us during the final four months of the year," he said.
The extra business generated by the hurricanes has translated to an 11-percent increase in revenues, which were about $10 million a year before the storm, he said.
"A lot of the revenue hasn't been paid, yet. In some cases, we may not have signed the new leases until December. And by the time they get their payments going, you're into 2006," Marino said.
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