New Orleans Airport Comeback

The airport has just received a $15.2 million federal grant that will likely be used to help repairs. There is still a hole in the roof over the airport's C concourse.

NEW ORLEANS (MarketWatch) -- You may not smell the beignets or hear any jazz, but they're coming back.

So says Roy Williams, the director of aviation at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, which on Tuesday marked the first regular passenger flight's arrival from Memphis on Northwest Airlines since Hurricane Katrina shut down the airport for regular flights on Aug. 28.

It's one step toward getting the airport, and by extension the region, back on its feet.

"I really think the smell of the fresh beignets, the sound of Louis Armstrong playing on our public address system, crowds ... all the shops open, and hopefully a small and manageable line at each checkpoint ... I think that's December," he said. "You just can sense the community is ready to come back."

Of course, little has been regular at the airport since Katrina hit.

Soldiers from the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division and law enforcement officials strolling through the terminals seem to easily outnumber any travelers.

But at least the soldiers' rifles don't have any magazines in them and everyone appeared relieved to have been through the worst of the past few weeks.

It was through this airport, which sees 10 million travelers a year, that tens of thousands of people fled New Orleans after the flood waters inundated the city. Some had never flown before. Others were so sick they could hardly move.

A skeleton crew of airport employees, TSA screeners and 13 sheriff's deputies helped organize the evacuation of some 30,000 people in just days. That was on top of the rush of people who had already left ahead of the storm.

"By [August 31], we had the evacuee population ... we totally had to shift gears," he said. Williams said his experience running Dayton International Airport, which had a regular air show that disrupted operations, prepared him for the improvisation.

"It was very much invent it as you go."

With busloads of people showing up, the airport had to process as many as 1,000 people an hour, but without the benefit of its usual equipment, power and personnel. Cardboard cards had to replace tickets in some cases. People slept where they could.

The Air Transport Association also helped fly people out of the city with volunteer flights from its member carriers and the Civil Reserve Air Fleet also started to arrive once the airport's runways opened after the storm.

Williams said that the airport could have taken even more, but there was a mistaken understanding among planners in Washington that the airport with its undamaged airfield was unable to handle more.

"All I can tell you is that throughout this entire process I had plenty of places to put planes. I was just floored that anyone was saying there wasn't any place to put planes."

He said there were as many as 3,800 takeoffs and landings a day in early September as swarms of helicopters operated out of the airport conducting search and rescue and other operations.

The airport did sustain $55 million to $56 million in damage from the storm, Williams said. There is still a hole in the roof over the airport's C concourse that is a striking sign of Katrina's power. Other damage to the airport's roof showed metal so twisted that it looked like plastic sheeting.

Williams the airport had just received a $15.2 million federal grant that will likely be used to help repairs.

That won't help bring back lost revenue, however.

The airport usually has $200,000 in income a day and another $200,000 in expenses and debt payments, according to Williams. Currently, the revenue is more like $20,000, he said, because it depends on variables such as concessions or vehicle rental and landing fees.

Typical hurricanes only shut the airport for a short time, about 12 to 18 hours before a storm, with flights resuming eight to 12 hours later.

Katrina was far different.

Along with Northwest NWB, Delta Air Lines Inc. DALis also back at the airport with two flights a day.

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