Airport traffic takes off despite economy

HATTIESBURG — While the recession has negatively affected most airports, officials at the Hattiesburg-Laurel Regional Airport report an increase in traffic.

Not only is the airport still seeing increases in its annual boardings, it’s also home to more than 60 private aircraft — the most ever, according to officials.

“They’re actually the largest bill payers at the airport,” said Tom Heanue, executive director of the Hattiesburg-Laurel Regional Airport. “The more aircraft you put in your hangars, you get a small fee for that.”

A majority of the airport’s profits from private aircraft is from fuel flow or fuel taxes.

“We’re making great strides in relieving the tax burden on the taxpayers with the more aircraft we can get housed at the airport,” Heanue said.

And in an effort to increase that capacity, plans are already under way to erect a 100 foot-by-100 foot hangar at the airport to accommodate five to six additional private planes.

Heanue has already gotten the green light from elected officials in Forrest and Jones counties to secure the funding for the project, which is expected to cost around $400,000.

“We’ve built hangars in the past … but the last couple of times we’ve built hangars they came from (Mississippi Department of Transportation) funding and it didn’t cost the government a thing,” he said.

Heanue said he hopes to have the new hangar built and filled with private aircraft by late summer.

In the first two months of the 2010, the airport saw a 17 percent increase in the number of passengers boarding its commercial flights — compared to Jan. and Feb. 2009. Outgoing passenger traffic also is up 22 percent over last year.

Although things are off to a good start, the airport has experienced some turbulence in its strides toward progression. The airport had to take a $18,000 loss to its budget due to the closing of its adjacent golf course — Pine Belt National Golf Club.

“The people who were in the lease with us, and owned that 10 acres, failed and have gone bankrupt,” he said. “And the bank that owns part of that property have foreclosed on us.”

According to the course’s web site, it was previously owned by Traditional Golf Resources.

Heanue said the airport is probably out an additional $12,000 from all the debt the course’s previous owners left.

“We working on recouping those monies we lost,” he said.

Heanue said a local businessman has expressed interest in purchasing the course and reopening it for public use.

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