For an Airport That's Closed, It's the Liveliest Spot in New Orleans

Helicopters and military transport planes land and take off constantly, more than 4,000 soldiers and airmen now live and work within the 2.5-square-mile complex, and a triage center treats more than 100 patients each day.


The ticket counters are quiet at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport. The 40 gates are no longer open to dispatch and receive passengers. The baggage conveyor belt is still. The 174 regular daily departures are down to zero.

This is not to say that the airport is lifeless. Indeed, it has probably never before contained so much life. Helicopters and military transport planes land and take off constantly. More than 4,000 soldiers and airmen now live and work within the 2.5-square-mile complex. A triage center treats more than 100 patients each day. The Army is about to open a combat support hospital here to care for injured soldiers.

Many places along the Gulf Coast have been transformed by the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, but few so dramatically as the New Orleans airport, which has been made into a military base, medical facility and staging area for the soldiers and supplies that are streaming into the flood-ravaged city by the hour.

The airport's director, Roy A. Williams, has tried to view the changes with equanimity. Two weeks ago, he was excited about a plan to build an entirely new airport -- either 8 miles to the west, near Norco in St. Charles Parish, or 20 miles to the east, in eastern New Orleans -- at a cost of $3 billion to $4 billion.

Those plans are obviously delayed now, and will be for quite some time, if not forever. Mr. Williams has taken the setback in stride. He is too busy trying to take care of his new tenants, the military, to think much about his former tenants, the airlines.

He has daily morning meetings at 7:15 to check on the status of the medical facility at the western end of the airport terminal, and at 9, to review operational issues like perimeter security and the arrival of new government agencies.

''I have been on the campus since the morning of Aug. 28, with the exception of a helicopter ride,'' Mr. Williams, 51, said in an interview on Friday in his air-conditioned office.

Acting as the landlord of a federalized air station is not what Mr. Williams had in mind when the New Orleans Aviation Board appointed him the director of aviation in 2001.

Mr. Williams, who formerly ran the airport in Dayton, Ohio, was hired in part to attract more passengers and more airlines to New Orleans.

The airport's passenger count was largely stagnant from the late 1970's through the early 1990's, but it had slowly grown with the rise of discount carriers. (Southwest Airlines was the airport's biggest carrier as measured by the number of passengers, followed by Delta and Continental.)

In August 2001 the airport for the first time processed 10 million passengers over the last 12 months. Then tourism and travel plummeted following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Two weeks ago, on Aug. 26, Mr. Williams and his staff congratulated themselves. In the 12 months ending in July 2005, the 10 million mark had been reached once again.

Two days later, all the airlines suspended flights to and from New Orleans as Katrina approached. On Aug. 29, the hurricane damaged one or both of the two main power feeds that supply electricity to the airport.

The airport itself remained unscathed. There was some flooding at the end of one of the runways, and the surrounding town of Kenner, in Jefferson Parish, sustained some heavy flooding. The airport terminal itself, which has one million square feet, suffered only five broken panes of glass.

The next day, Aug. 30, brought a relief flight from American Airlines, bearing humanitarian supplies, water and food. That day and the next, stranded passengers who had been trying to get out of New Orleans even before the storm continued to wait -- most for flights that never arrived.

Then the hospitals started calling. For about three days -- Sept. 2-4 -- the airport was home to more than 4,000 takeoffs and landings a day, making it the busiest airfield in the entire world for that brief period, by Mr. Williams's reckoning.

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