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Capital improvement projects underway at state

Blue skies: Mississippi airports report increased activity

Despite budget cuts for the new fiscal year, the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) is investing $5 million in non-highway modes of transportation, with the aeronautics division reaping $1.7 million to fund projects that will economically impact Mississippi airports. Applications for a portion of those funds were due to MDOT by July 1.

“MDOT stepped up to the plate and put some money in those needed projects,” said Elton Jay, director of MDOT’s Aeronautics Division. “In fiscal years 2003 and 2004, MDOT also put an additional $1.25 million into the aeronautics budgets to pay the full federal matching share of federal projects, which the government paid in fiscal years 2002 and 2003 to help Mississippi airports with additional operational costs post 9/11.”

In general, Mississippi airports are financially sound, with some airports supplemented by local funds for operation costs.

“We do well with what we have,” said Jay. “After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Mississippi’s airport service really dropped off, probably more than the national average, but our airports all seem to be doing well now.”

For the five months ended May 2001, Mississippi airports reported 502,000 enplanements. For the same five months in 2002 and 2003, 450,000 enplanements were reported each year. So far in 2004, Mississippi airports reported 466,000 enplanements.

“It’s an indication that passenger traffic is picking up again,” said Jay, who pointed out the statistics were unofficial, because each airport documents charter flights directly to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

One challenge that Mississippi airports cannot seem to overcome is competing with nearby larger markets that offer lower fares and more frequent service, said Jay.

“About five years ago, we did a state system plan, which showed that approximately 50% of the people who fly out of Mississippi go to out-of-state airports — New Orleans, Mobile and Memphis — because of the lower fares,” he said. “That hasn’t changed much because it’s difficult to compete with larger markets. Low-cost carriers like Southwest Airlines and an increased frequency of operations have helped make our rates more competitive.”

The Jackson International Airport (JIA) and Gulfport-Biloxi Regional Airport (GBRA) remain the state’s two busiest airports for commercial traffic, with other key airports in the Golden Triangle, Meridian, Tupelo, Greenville and Hattiesburg-Laurel lagging far behind.

“Olive Branch is the state’s busiest airport, but only offers charter service,” said Jay. “Right now, they have about 250 private planes.”

JIA and GBRA, both in the middle of major capital improvement projects, have reported steady increases in passenger traffic.

In May 2004, 111,569 people traveled through JIA, up 4% from 107,224 passengers (enplanements and deplanements) last May. Delta Air Lines retained the largest market share (38.2%), followed closely by Southwest (29.6%), and then Northwest (11.3%), American (9.3%), Continental (6.5%) and U.S. Air Express (5.1%).

Through May 31, JIA reported 492,806 passengers, up 4% compared to 473,778 for the same period last year. About 70% are business travelers; 30% travel for leisure.

“Overall, the economy is rebounding, and numbers of passengers are continually increasing,” said Dirk Vanderleest, executive director of the Jackson Municipal Airport Authority (JMAA), which serves JIA and Hawkins Field. “One of our gauges is the parking garage, and we’ve noticed it was full a couple of times in June. We haven’t seen that in a long time.”

Contracts for the $10-million terminal renovation project were awarded this spring to W.G. Yates & Sons Construction Company Inc. for a two-year contract that started June 1. The renovation project includes new restrooms, elevators, escalators, lighting, energy management upgrades, landscaping and a new public address system. It also includes a public community room, public art display and flight information display systems.

In May, JIA completed a $1-million project to upgrade its security system to accommodate the new state-of-the-art explosive detection systems for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), including five new machines. Even though airports may now submit an opt-out application to TSA to employ private screeners, JIA will not pursue that option, said Vanderleest.

Construction continues on the $15-million four-phase Mississippi International Air Cargo Center, which will ultimately include 450,000 square feet of warehouse and distribution space. The first phase of the project was finished by the time Nissan North America opened its Canton plant in May 2003.

“Like everyone else, we’re waiting for the ground to dry up a little bit, but AFCO, the third-party developer, and Fountain Construction, the prime contractor, are in the midst of building a 40,000-square-foot facility, which should be up and running by Oct. 1,” said Vanderleest.

In December, Vanderleest mentioned that JMAA’s primary strategic initiative would include targeting freight forwarders and the Far East.

“We’ve made two trips to the Far East — Bangkok, Thailand and Shanghai, China — and we’ll continue to aggressively market the Mississippi International Air Cargo Center,” he said. For the first four months of 2004, GBRA reported 288,885 passengers (enplanements and deplanements), up 2% compared to 284,403 passengers reported the same period last year.

Work began March 22 on GRBA’s $25.4-million capital improvement project, which will expand the terminal from 92,000 square feet to 165,000 square feet. The first phase began with the construction of the airport’s new covered Ground Transportation Queue, which will facilitate the movement of passengers. The two-year project also calls for increased baggage claim and inspection areas, security check point improvements, and the central utilities plant.

Specifically, the baggage screening equipment will be relocated from in front of the ticket counters to behind them. An area is being created for two new airlines that have not yet been determined, and space for the five existing airlines — AirTran, ASA Delta, Continental, Northwest and Southeast — is being doubled. The area for processing passengers through the screening checkpoint is being tripled, and all of the airport concessions are being relocated to the secure side of airport operations. The size of the baggage claim area is being tripled, and an international arrivals area is being created.

“We’re creating some much needed circulation space in the terminal, which will help our passenger flow,” said airport director Bruce Frallic. “These air transportation improvements are important to the development of the resort industry, as well as to the business and manufacturing community.”

Beginning May 1, the airport began offering additional weekend seats when Delta upgraded one of its existing turboprop flights to mainline jet service through its carrier, ASA. The number of departing seats available for sale on Saturdays increased from 498 to 574.

“Now we have a mixture,” said Frallic. “ASA Delta operates eight flights daily, and mainline operations has additional service on the weekends. That means more choices for our passengers.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at mbj@thewritingdesk.com.


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