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Planned improvements should help business travelers

Mississippi airports expect federal funding boost

Mississippi airports both large and small are expected to benefit dramatically from the new Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) bill recently approved by the U.S. Congress.

“We are going to be very positively impacted,” says Elton Jay, director of aeronautics for the Mississippi Department of Transportation. “It will provide quite an increase in funding.”

Mississippi businesses with small, corporate airplanes that use general aviation airports without commercial carriers will benefit from increases in funding for non-carrier airports. Statewide, general aviation airports have been getting between $3.5 to $3.8 million. The FAA bill recommends increasing that amount to $11 million in 2001.

The general aviation airports are important to corporate business travelers, aerial applicators of fertilizers and herbicides for the forest and agriculture industries and for emergency medical transportation.

“General aviation airports mean a lot to the economic viability of the community,” Jay said. “These funds will help maintain and improve those types of airports, an overlooked section of aviation.”

Airports with commercial airline carriers will also benefit considerably with funding from FAA recommended to nearly double. Jackson International Airport would increase from $1.7 million per year to $3.4 million.

Jerry Keever, director of marketing for the Jackson Municipal Airport Authority (JMAA), said the Mississippi International Air Cargo Center project at the Jackson International Airport will be the primary focus of the extra funding. He said the cargo center is a $19.4-million project that has been designed to provide existing carriers with expansion opportunities and to give JMAA better economic development tools to attract new businesses such as freight forwarders and international carriers.

Gulfport/Biloxi Regional Airport would increase from $950,000 to $1.9 million in the first year. The five other commercial air service airports — Golden Triangle, Meridian, Greenville, Tupelo and Hattiesburg/Laurel — would each receive $1 million per year.

Although money still must be appropriated to fund the bill, the bill’s passage by a large majority in Congress leads airport backers to be hopeful.

Jay said that taxes collected from airline ticket sales and fuel sales have increased because of a significant increase in air travel.

“This is all aviation-generated taxes that are going back to where they are intended to go,” Jay said.

Cliff Nash, director of the Mid-Delta Regional Airport in Greenville, said that more federal money would mean that the city would have to pay less for airport improvements planned in the next several years.

“The airport relies heavily on funding from the AIP (Airport Improvement Program),” Nash said. “Without that money the city would be hard pressed to maintain the airport.”

Nash said the airport is applying to the FAA to initiate a passenger facility charge that would add $3 per ticket in funds that would be returned to the airport. That would help provide the city’s 10% share for AIP funds.

Mid-Delta has also applied for a $2.2-million grant to repave and seal two taxiways, rehabilitate taxiway lights, repair and repave the airport access road and install a new airfield security fence. The grant application is through the FAA’s discretionary funding program which is managed separately from entitlement money.

“We feel we’ll be able to get the projects funded,” Nash said. “The bad news is the city has to come up with $220,000 for the local match. That represents a fourth of our operating budget out here. It is quite a challenge to maintain the airport. Even with federal grant money, it is still a large expense.”

Last year Mid-Delta saw the second largest increase in passenger boarding in the state. Boardings were up 42%. Gulfport-Biloxi Regional Airport was up 80%, attributed largely to new AirTran service provided by an agreement with Beau Rivage Resorts.

Bruce Frallic, director of the Gulfport-Biloxi Regional Airport, said the increase in funding will allow them to proceed with several critical capacity projects at the terminal so they can load and unload six jets simultaneously.

Although not in the same league as the Coast, Hattiesburg-Laurel Regional Airport is also seeing increased passenger boardings. Dave Senne, executive director of the Hattiesburg/Laurel Regional Airport, said the increased funding in needed to accommodate increased numbers of passengers.

“What we are trying to do is keep pace with the increase in demand,” Senne said. “Right now what is happening is that the airlines’ capacity to move passengers is accelerating faster than the airports and airways ability to handle it. There have been increases in both business and leisure air travel helped by general improvements in the economy.”

Senne said the increased funding will give them additional resources to improve the airport’s capacity.

Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com or (228) 872-3457.


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