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‘Customer service has really taken off,’ airport director says

Growing by leaps and bounds could well describe the Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport (GBIA). The bustling facility, located just east of U.S. 49 in Gulfport, was in expansion mode prior to Hurricane Katrina’s untimely interruption. Construction continued after the storm, and even as the new expansion was recently unveiled, plans are being developed for more expansion.

“We’ve had huge growth in three years,” says Bruce Frallic, airport director at GBIA. “We have more air service now. Before Katrina we had four airlines and six non-stop destinations. Now we have nine airlines and 14 non-stop destinations, and the fares are very competitive.”

The newly opened $50-million terminal has space for two more airlines and offers four food and beverage venues, enlarged ticketing area, new passenger gates and baggage claim areas, improved security and an expanded pick-up/drop-off area.

“One of the main things I want people to know is that customer service has really taken off,” Frallic says. “We’re most proud of this because customers can have a wonderful experience here. There’s a lot of room for flow and circulation now.”

Gulfport attorney and Airport Commission legal counsel Cy Faneca says there are many contributing factors to the success of the airport since its early days when it was used to train flight crews for World War II.

“In the highly competitive aviation industry, we successfully compete, but it takes a lot of effort,” he says. “It is not easy. We have a staff of professionals, and we operate the airport as a business.”

He believes flying in and out of the airport should be a pleasant experience. It should also make a positive impression on visitors. “Our community supports our airport, and our airport supports our community,” he says. “It is the only equation for a successful airport.”

The Coast gaming industry is part of that community support and a contributing factor to the airport’s growth. Marlin F. Torguson, chairman and CEO of the Torguson Gaming Group that’s developing the Bacaran Bay Resort in Biloxi, cites the airport as an example of the market’s strong performance.

“The completion of the expansion of the Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport, its ability to now service up to 2.5 million annual passengers and its future expansion plans will generate even further growth for the area,” he says.

Bob Davidge, advertising and public relations manager of Hollywood Casino Bay St. Louis, feels the business and travel community are working well together to make the Mississippi Gulf Coast the playground of the South once again.

“The new airport expansion is a perfect example of that as it grows from 650,000 air travelers two years ago to an expected 2.4 million in the next year or so,” he says. “If we continue to take prudent steps in planning for the future and concentrate on the betterment of all, the future is remarkably bright for the Coast.”

Faneca says that without a doubt, the phenomenal growth of the airport is driven by the casino industry, including businesses that support the casinos.

“Learning from Las Vegas, we want to stay somewhat ahead of the growth curve,” he says. “That is, we work hard to ensure the airport meets the needs of our business and tourism industries, not only for today but also for tomorrow. We view the airport as an economic tool and refuse to let it lag behind the needs of the community or hinder its growth.”

Jim Pitts, the airport’s marketing director, says further expansion is in the formative stages and that meetings are underway to make plans.

“We see that we will need it because all segments of travel have come back strong since Katrina. That includes leisure and business travel as well as VFR, or visit-friends-and-relatives, travel,” he says. “Volunteers are still flying in, and there’s something developing as we see a lot of people re-locating here from other parts of the country. We don’t know what the opening of Margaritaville and other big projects will do here. We’re having amazing growth.”

Frallic praises the overall development occurring at the airport and around it. In addition to the new terminal, there are new rental car reservation counters, a USO Lounge for servicemen and women and a VIP Lounge to open later this year. The construction of $43-million air cargo and general aviation ramps will be complete in July along with a $10-million air cargo building and an 800-car parking garage to be complete by the end of the year.

The $52-million Hilton Garden Inn and Residence Inn projects are expected to be complete in April in the office park across the street from the airport entrance. These projects utilized GO Zone incentives and will add 244 rooms to the area’s inventory. At some point this year, the Reflections Office Park’s three buildings of class A office space will be complete.

“That’s $300 million in development with public and private funds that we’re really proud of,” Frallic says.

Faneca points out that fortunately the airport has acreage for future growth to expand as the local economy expands.

“We keep abreast of business and tourism developments, needs and projections,” he says. “We market, market, market — very aggressively, not only along the Gulf Coast, but in many states and Latin American countries. We will go anywhere, anytime for the opportunity to open new markets.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.


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