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Region’s airports took lick, but have expanded since storm

The Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport was in the middle of a $50-million terminal expansion project when Katrina hit on August 29, 2005. Despite significant damage, the airport reopened August 30 to serve as a vital hub for delivering relief to the storm battered Gulf Coast.

“The airport opened the day after the storm, and thank goodness for that because we were able to accommodate the relief flights that were coming in,” said airport director Bruce Frallic.

Frallic said there were so many commercial and military aircrafts supplying points of distribution the first month after the storm that it looked like the Berlin airlift.

“We had an operation every 45 seconds the first couple of weeks after the storm,” Frallic said. “We had a landing or takeoff every 45 seconds. This place looked like a large city airport.

“We got our scheduled commercial service back on September 8, and were back to 100% of our pre-Katrina seats available with our five airlines on February 1. Right now we are at 105%. On August 29, we will be at 114%. We are actually carrying more passengers now than before the storm.”

Key to recovery and growth

Frallic said the airport has been critical first to the relief and then to the recovery of the Gulf Coast. It is also playing a vital role in the growth of the Gulf Coast.

“I was in New York a week ago with a delegation of Coast business leaders meeting with travel writers, bankers and other financial leaders,” Frallic said. “Their first question: How is your air service doing? They were astonished we were over 100% of the volume post-Katrina.”

AirTran is returning with its non-stop Tampa service July 6, and non-stop Ft. Lauderdale service August 29. American Eagle started service in December.

The new terminal construction underway took some damage and the existing building was damaged. Temporary repairs have been made, and the terminal expansion project is underway again. Permanent repairs are expected to be complete in the summer of 2007.

“We lost about eight months,” Frallic said. “We were supposed to open the expansion late this summer, and now it looks like the first quarter of 2007.”

The damage meant that improvement projects planned had to be moved up. There was a new cargo area planned before the storm. After the existing cargo building was destroyed, the project was moved ahead and now includes reconstructing the entire cargo operation.

The airport had also planned future improvements to the general aviation area that were expected to be complete in two to three years. Now the airport will move to the new general aviation area quarters as soon as construction is complete.

“The storm hit and moved all of our projects up,” Frallic said.

Currently, the airport is expanding surface parking. When that is complete, construction will begin on a three-story parking garage with 800 spaces. There are also plans for ramp expansion at the terminal area, and a ramp infrastructure project in the future general aviation area.

Developing a master plan

In Jackson County at the Trent Lott International Airport, operations also resumed quickly after Katrina hit.

“We were open the very next day,” said airport executive director Carol Snapp.

“I actually stayed here during the hurricane, and immediately following our FBO (fixed base operator) reported to work to do a runway check to make sure we had no debris. We had to get a generator to pump fuel, but then were in business again.

Snapp’s said the airport employees especially deserve credit because many continued to work long hours even though they experienced damage to their home.

“They stayed here and worked probably 16 hours per day supporting other missions,” Snapp said. “They did a wonderful job.

The airport has seen an increase in traffic even after the relief and recovery missions ended. A new air traffic control tower that opened in October makes the airport a safer operation.

Some companies, particularly helicopter operations transporting personnel to offshore oil rigs, relocated to Trent Lott because their previous locations were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

“A couple of companies have come to Trent Lott for the first time, and they like it,” Snapp said.

The airport has hired a consultant from Denver to develop a new master plan for the airport to increase capacity at the terminal and for parking. Snapp said right now they are doing what they can to make everyone comfortable.

“But as soon as the airport layout plan is complete, we look forward to larger facilities,” Snapp said.

The number of flights at the airport has almost doubled since November when the traffic count 2,200. In May, it was 4,100.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

About Becky Gillette

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