Gulfport-Biloxi Airport Back, But Carriers Plan Fewer Flights

Ten days after Hurricane Katrina caused at least $40 million in damages to the Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport, flights resumed on Sept. 8 with two flights by Northwest Airlines [NWAC].

Located near hard-hit Gulfport, Miss., the airport had 21 scheduled flights on four airlines prior to the Aug. 29 storm - most of which were on regional jets. It will have between five and 14 flights once the last of the four airlines resumes operations on Sept. 19, said Ken Spirito, the assistant executive director. Delta Air Lines [DAL], which had been flying nine daily flights, has not finalized its schedule.

American Eagle [AMR] had been scheduled to begin two daily flights to Dallas on Oct. 30. Spirito said American Eagle is still committed to the market, but will begin service on Dec. 15.

"The airport across the board suffered tens of millions worth of damage," Spirito told Regional Aviation News. "We don't have estimates, but I can tell you it is north of $40 million. It could be well beyond that, but $40 million right now is a good stab."

The airport, run by a local quasi-governmental body, expects to have the damage covered by insurance, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Situated about three miles from the coast and between two creeks, the airport sustained about 75 percent of its damage from the hurricane-force winds. Some of the airport roads were flooded when the storm surge caused the creeks to overflow.

The storm damaged about 50 percent of the terminal building and 80 percent of the cargo facility. Its navigation aides, including the control tower and the runway lights, were damaged. The car rental facility was totaled, he said.

While the military was able to use the facility the day after the storm, it provided air traffic control until the FAA could replace its damaged tower equipment on Sept. 6. The terminal building has been "weatherized" with power and air conditioning restored. Its secured areas are again back to Transportation Security Administration (TSA) standards.

When commercial operations resumed last week, Spirito said the airlines and the TSA flew in crews to handle the local operations. The airport and airlines have been hampered in their efforts to get the word out that operations have resumed. In addition, it was important to allow employees to take care of personal need for morale reasons. Fully one-third of the airport staff lost everything in storm, he noted.

A mutual aid response brought airport staff members from a number of airports to assist in getting the Gulfport facility ready for commercial operations. "Without their support, we could never have made this happen," he said.

Prior to the storm, Gulfport-Biloxi had anticipated 920,000 enplanements for this year. Both Delta and Continental [CAL] had been scheduled to upgrade at least one RJ flight to a mainline aircraft on Sept. 1. The airport won a $750,000 grant through the Small Community Air Service Development program to help underwrite an expansion of Delta's service with two daily flights to Cincinnati. The grant was announced just days before Katrina struck.

Tourism, fueled by 13 casinos, has been driving the Gulfport-Biloxi economy and the growing need for air service. The most recent casino, a Hard Rock Cafe, was to have opened in the first week of September.

With the casinos destroyed in Katrina's storm surge, the demand for air service is expected to drop. "I don't know how many passengers we will have in 2006," Spirito said.

"We have talked to our airlines and we are in a different period now. We have gone from a tourism-based industry to a relief and recovery industry. There will be a lot of traffic from insurance companies and corporations to monitor the reconstruction of their facilities," Spirito said. In addition, a number of Mississippi residents are expected to fly to Las Vegas to take temporary positions in casinos.

"We will come back stronger than ever," Spirito said. "We want to make sure that this is a key economic tool for the state of Mississippi Gulf coast."

>>Contact: Ken Spirito, Gulfport-Biloxi airport, (228) 863-5951.

Post-Katrina Airline Operations

* AirTran: 1 out of 4 flights

* Delta Air Lines: Less than 9 flights

* Continental: 2 out of 5 flights

* Northwest: 2 of 3 flights

Source: Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport

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