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Golden Triangle Regional Airport posts impressive numbers

Backstage Pass

Passenger traffic remains down at the Jackson International Airport and Gulfport/Biloxi International Airport, Mississippi’s two largest commercial airports. Yet passenger activity at the state’s third largest airport, Golden Triangle Regional Airport, is surprisingly ahead of last year’s numbers.

In June, the Golden Triangle Regional Airport reported a 2.3% increase over last June in passenger traffic, of which 80% is business travel. Northwest Airlink continues to offer four daily flights and ASA, a Delta subsidiary, offers eight daily flights, both through Atlanta, Memphis and Dallas/Ft. Worth hubs.

“We’re coming back very strong,” said Nick Ardillo, airport director. “In April, we were less than one percentage point behind the previous year, and prior to 9/11, we were having the best year ever. Especially now, people seem to be very comfortable getting into the national air transportation system from smaller airports because it’s more convenient.”

At Jackson International Airport (JIA), passenger traffic is down 11% from last June, while security expenses, especially for the parking garage, are “hemorrhaging the budget,” said Dirk Vanderleest, executive director of the Jackson Municipal Airport Authority.

“To comply with the 300-foot rule, which has been in effect since Sept. 11, we have to inspect every vehicle that goes through our garage and that alone is costing close to $27,000 a month,” he said. “Even though we’re getting some reimbursement from the federal government, it’s coming out of our pocket. We’ll hopefully get some relief and a final approval from TSA (the newly formed Transportation Security Administration) on our blast assessment (potential damage from bomb blasts).”

Work is underway at JIA for the $19.4 million first phase of the Mississippi International Air Cargo Center, which should be open by mid-2003 and spur additional activity, including business with Nissan. The cargo facility, located on the west side of the airport, is a four-phase project that will ultimately include 450,000 square feet of warehouse and distribution space. Four cargo carriers serve the airport, which is a U.S. custom port of entry with an onsite office and a designated general purpose Foreign Trade Zone.

Bruce Frallic, executive director of the Gulfport/Biloxi International Airport, said passenger traffic is within 12% of pre-9/11 levels, which was already down 5% because of a recessionary economy. But there’s good news: even though overall seat capacity remains down, some airlines have upgraded their aircraft, which will boost seat capacity when all flights are restored.

Continental recently increased its market share from Gulfport/Biloxi to Houston by swapping four turboprop “puddle hoppers” with three regional jets and a 737 after Air Tran dropped daily flights to Houston, which have not yet been restored. Northwest Airlines exchanged one of four DC-9s (100-passenger airplanes) for a regional jet in June.

Available seats on ASA flights to Atlanta are within 10% of pre-9/11 capacity. And Southeast Airlines, primarily a charter carrier, is continuing limited frequency service to Orlando, St. Petersburg/ Clearwater and Ft. Lauderdale markets, Frallic said.

“Air Tran, which has a marketing agreement with Beau Rivage and would not be in this market if it were not for the casino resorts, continues to set the low-cost fare to 34-plus markets,” said Frallic. “Surprisingly, less than half of all passengers are tourists. About 55% are business people — a combination of vendors and suppliers, investors and casino applicants and employees.”

Frallic predicted an estimated 860,000 passengers will come through the airport this year.

The state’s smaller commercial airports have continued to bounce back to near normal levels. In June, passenger traffic at Tupelo Regional Airport, which was chosen for the federal screening pilot program as a Category 4 airport, was about the same as last June. And the Mid Delta Regional Airport in Greenville is on target to hit the 10,000-passenger mark this year.

“Increased security measures have put a lot of strain on the budget, but TSA has reimbursed us on many expenses that would otherwise have made it difficult for us to overcome,” said Dr. Dan Kellum, chairman of the Tupelo Airport Authority.

With recent improvements, such as a new control tower with Terminal Area Radar Display and radar feed from Columbus AFB to provide controllers with radar information as low as 1,000 feet, airport officials hope to soon lure another airline in addition to Northwest Airlink, which offers four daily flights to Memphis.

“We’re actively seeking other commercial service,” said Kellum. “Besides our air traffic control tower, we’ve built a new fire station, a corporate hangar, and we’re planning a T-hangar project, where we’ll put in 14 hangars that I believe are already taken. As soon as we get a commitment on the next 14, we’ll build more.”

Peggy Turner, interim director for the Mid Delta Regional Airport, said airport officials are “very pleased with passenger travel, which is already over the 5,000 mark.”

“I can’t say that our number of passengers have returned to pre-9/11 levels, but they are increasing,” she said.

The economic climate is a bigger challenge than increased security measures, said airport directors.

“There’s an extraordinary pessimism in the economy right now,” said Frallic. “The airlines feel the burden of a recession earlier and longer. It’s a very unusual demand curve for the airlines relative to the national economy.”

For several months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, charter flights increased dramatically. Since then, business travel has increased on commercial flights to near normal levels.

“Since the initial 9/11 slowdown, people have realized they’ve obviously got to travel to do business,” said Ardillo. “You can do teleconferencing and phone conferencing once you have relationships established with suppliers and customers, but most people like to get face-to-face for initial meetings and for cutting contracts.”

Contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter’s column on business travel — and the business of it — appears regularly in the Mississippi Business Journal. Contact her at backstagepass4travel@yahoo.com </a or (601) 672-0146.

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