Stop-and-go funding makes planning tough for Mississippi airport chiefs

August 12, 2011

Economic Development, Politics

The refusal of Congress to go beyond short-hop funding for the Federal Aviation Administration has made uncertainty just another work challenge that the heads of Mississippi’s two major commercial airports must overcome.

As one funding lapse ends another one appears on the horizon for Dirk Vanderleest at Jackson-Evers International Airport and Bruce Frallic at Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport.

The Aug. 8 vote by the Senate to temporarily extend FAA funding after the House recessed without reauthorizing the money ended a two-week shutdown of FAA construction projects. The action assured the return of 10 FAA workers to Jackson-Evers and resumption of work on Gulf-Biloxi’s new 120-foot air traffic control tower.

Nationwide, the reauthorization returned 4,000 FAA workers to their jobs as well as 70,000 construction workers who had been working on air traffic control projects.

Now Vanderleest and Frallic have their calendars marked for Sept. 12, when the extension approved Aug. 8 expires.

“When Congress comes back from recess they will have to deal with this issue,” said Vanderleest, CEO of the Jackson Municipal Airport Authority.

“Yes, it creates challenges,” said Frallic, executive director of the Gulf-Biloxi Airport Authority. “We’ve been through this many times before, particularly the last 12 to 14 years have been very challenging. We take it like it comes.”

Vanderleest says his count shows 21 temporary funding extensions in recent years.

Each funding delay causes a snag on the planning side, Vanderleest said. He said a five-year extension would enable “the FAA, airports, airlines and the aviation community to plan accordingly.”

The most recent funding lapse is estimated to have cost the FAA about $420 million in tickets fees from the airlines. That translates to fewer dollars available for projects at airports around the country, including Jackson-Evers where $68 million in projects are planned through 2014, and Gulfport-Biloxi where $16 million in projects are planned.

“The FAA has not figured out what impact it will have on airports for the next several years,” Vanderleest said of the lost money.

Of the $86 million Jackson-Evers expects to receive, about 68 percent is to be funded from the FAA’s Airport Improvement Fund, the fund depleted by the recent shutdown.

An access-control project that includes cameras, baggage screening and other security measures is also part of the long-range work.

Frallic said he is unsure what the trickle-down will be but for now he is “just thankful we have an FAA bill in place.”

In new fiscal year’s FAA funding, Frallic expects funds for design work on a second taxiway extension. One taxiway extension is under way, along with lighting improvements and roadwork, he said.

Despite the two weeks of lost work on the new control tower, Frallic still thinks the FAA will have the tower’s interior completed by the end of the year. “The tower is virtually completed,” he said. “Pretty much by the end of the year they will be done with equipment installation and begin with training.”

The tower replaces one erected in the 1970s.

At Jackson-Evers, work on an overlay for the east runway was spared a shutdown because money for the work had already been received, Vanderleest said.

Had Congress delayed FAA funding resumption until Labor Day, about $1 billion in ticket fees would have been lost to the agency.

That, Vanderleest said, would have had “a significant impact” on Jackson-Evers International Airport and Hawkins Field, along with other airports in Mississippi. “It would have been huge.”

What does Congress do Sept. 12?

“Your guess is as good as mine,” he said.

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