New Orleans Airport Comeback

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.

Northwest normally would have flown nine flights a day with Delta flying 15 to 16 a day.

Northwest will start flying five a day on Saturday, he said, and Delta is expected to expand service.

What's not yet clear is how many people who were scheduled to fly are still going to want to visit the area.

"That uncertainty is going to cloud all the carriers' operations for a while," he said.

One growth area is ferrying relief and reconstruction workers flying in and out. And the cargo carried by the airlines also holds promise even if legions of conventioneers are still a ways off. Local business, which has always been a mainstay, is expected to return to the skies, too.

Prior to Katrina, the airport had 10 million passengers going in and out of the airport each year with 174 departures a day.

Williams estimates that by next year the passenger levels could reach a range of 6 million to 8 million passengers, and they may have 90 to 100 flights a day at the start of the year with 130 by the end of the year.

"I hope I'm wrong but I think it'll be a while before we get back to the 10 million number," said Williams. "Maybe in the 2007 timeframe."

One determining factor will be how many hotel rooms open up for visitors, the kind that come to drink Hurricanes, not repair their damage.

The few flights are already a lifeline for some.

For Serissa Marrero, the resumption of flights meant coming back home quickly.

Marrero and her two daughters, aged 2 and 4, were at the airport waiting to be picked up after the three had just flown in from Virginia Beach, Va. on a Delta flight. She paid for the $206 trip with a credit card provided by the Red Cross.

That money from the Red Cross and a debit card from FEMA made the difference so that she could fly, she said.

"That's what enabled me to get back down here," she said.

For travelers like Marrero, the flight in to New Orleans afforded a first look at Katrina's devastation of some of the neighborhoods in Jefferson Parish, near the airport.

"It was hard to see from the plane ... but when we got close, it was real bad," she said.

Before that stark sight, Marrero said that the flight home out of Virginia Beach meant that she at least got a glimpse of the ocean.

"I got to see the beach before I left. I got my wish," she said.

If the baggage claim area lacks signs of arrival, it still has the hallmarks of evacuation. Cots for workers are still set up in areas between the baggage carousels where the lights are still out to provide some darkness.

In a sign of normalcy nearby, Tracy Simmons was getting the area ready for business at the Budget rental-car counter. They're not taking reservations, she explained, but they are renting cars on a weekly basis for $459 to those who show up.

"We are glad to be back," she said.

So far, they'd had four customers during their first full day.

The orderly counter, however, does not mean that it's anything at all like business as usual for Simmons or anyone else.

Simmons, who had ridden out the storm with family members in the region, said that though the counter was intact, the other areas used by Budget at the airport were badly damaged by the storm.

She said they also still are missing four employees.

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