HATTIESBURG — Boardings for June and July at the Hattiesburg-Laurel Regional Airport were the highest they have been since before Hurricane Katrina — and ran about 6.5 percent ahead of the volume for the first seven months of 2010.
In June, 1,475 passengers flew out of Hattiesburg-Laurel, highest for June since 1994. There were 1,319 departures in July. That was the best July on record since 2004.
The higher boarding figures come following disappointing news for airport officials: Delta Airlines recently announced that it would withdraw as the airport’s carrier. Airport officials said after the July 15 announcement that Delta will stay until a replacement carrier is found.
All told, Delta is dumping 24, smaller-market airports, including 16 that are part of the federally-funded Essential Air Service program. The EAS provides federal dollars to more than 100 of the country’s smaller regional and rural airports that otherwise couldn’t attract commercial airline service.
Delta is paid a $1.4-million subsidy annually to provide service to Hattiesburg-Laurel, which has been part of the EAS program since 1979
But that was no longer enough to persuade Delta to remain, and with every federal program under the microscope for ways to pare debt, airport executive director Thomas Heanue acknowledged that EAS is in for change.
Tight federal budgets have put the EAS program in the crosshairs of many congressmen, who see the subsidies as pork barrel spending to keep alive low-traffic, rural landing strips when other options for flight exist.
Heanue said that strong boarding figures would be a big help in attracting another carrier to Hattiesburg-Laurel.
“What we really need to let people know now is continue to tell people to continue to use their regional airport,” Heanue said. “We cannot go out and seek an additional carrier who wants to work in this market if the airplane’s not filled.