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Airports a barometer of local economy

Golden Triangle a prime example of how good business makes for a busy airport

 

Mike Hainsey, director of Golden Triangle Regional Airport (GTRA), said “airports are just a mirror of the local economy.  In our case, we have been making plans for these projects so that the airport infrastructure is ready when the businesses are.  That business model has worked well for us.”

Businesses such as American Eurocopter’s helicopter manufacturing plant, the Severstal steel mill and Stark Aerospace, which makes defense-related products, are near the Columbus airport.

Hainsey said the Columbus airport has been fortunate not to have to take money from EAS, which he calls “velvet handcuffs” that can prevent airport growth. 

Some regional airports are subsidized by the government through the Essential Air Service (EAS) program. EAS guarantees a minimal level of scheduled air service and currently serves approximately 140 rural communities nationwide that otherwise would not receive any scheduled air service.

Other Mississippi commercial service airports that do not accept EAS subsidies are Gulfport, Jackson and Tunica. Tunica gets some private financial help from the gaming industry.

EAS “maintains a minimum level of service for communities, but if those communities want to continue to grow, the airlines will have to give up the subsidy to do it,” Hainsey said. The logic is that if an airport can afford to grow, it doesn’t need the government’s help.

 

The Golden Triangle Regional Airport between Columbus, Starkville and West Point has been one of the most successful in recent years, specifically because of a burgeoning economy in the area.

The Golden Triangle Regional Airport between Columbus, Starkville and West Point has been one of the most successful in recent years, specifically because of a burgeoning economy in the area.

GTRA’s business increased by more than 29 percent from calendar year 2007 to 2008, according to Federal Aviation Administration numbers.

 

Airport business is up another 3 percent from last year, Hainsey said, unlike many airports statewide that are down 10 percent or more. The airport just opened a $1.5-million terminal expansion in May, which is part of $15 million in airport improvement projects that are planned for the next year.

The Golden Triangle area has been fortunate to have more than $3.5 billion in new industry since 2003. The airport’s traffic is about 80 percent business travel. If a company has to reimburse an employment by 50 cents per mile, traveling to a major airport might not be the most economical choice.

CEO of the Jackson-Evers International Airport, Dirk Vanderleest, said there is “no rhyme or reason” to airport fares. “It depends on where you’re going and the time of day. The key thing at the end of the day is time in advance,” he said.

Jackson-Evers airport traffic is 70 percent business travel.

Vanderleest said airport traffic is down by about 4.5 percent from the same 12-month period last year, but he thinks the airport has done “remarkably well” in the current recession compared to other cities nationally.

Delta flights to Atlanta from the Jackson airport may be more expensive than those out of the Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport because Delta has no competition in Jackson. The airline must compete with AirTran Airways at Gulfport-Biloxi, which also offers flights to Atlanta.

Jackson-Evers obtained Southwest in 1997 as its low-cost carrier, Vanderleest said. Often when an airport has one low-cost carrier, another doesn’t want to step in.

While local commercial service airports like Meridian Regional and Tupelo Regional only have flights to Atlanta on Delta, Gulfport-Biloxi — due to its casino and tourism traffic — has seven different carriers providing flights to cities such as Dallas, Houston, Memphis, Charlotte, N.C., and Tampa, Fla. 

Gulfport-Biloxi’s assistant executive director Jim Foster said the airport’s passengers comprise 60 percent business and military travelers and 40 percent tourists. 

May 2010 business was up 16.8 percent from the same month last year. Foster says the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster may have contributed to increased business.

Gulfport-Biloxi expects to see between 840,000 and 860,000 passengers for calendar year 2010.

Foster calls the airport the “doorstep to the Gulf Coast” and says the service makes them stand out when competing with Mobile and New Orleans, which offers Southwest.

“We strive to have that hometown feel with the kind of convenience and amenities that will make people want to come back,” Foster said.

Tunica Municipal, which opened in 2003, has offered AirTran Airways flights to Atlanta since May. Tunica Municipal director Cliff Nash said flights through July are mostly booked.

Mid Delta Regional Airport in Greenville saw a 23 percent drop in total passengers from 2007 to 2008, according to the FAA. The Delta Economic Development Center could not provide information on job announcements or losses at press time.

The Tupelo Regional Airport experienced a 44 percent decrease in business from 2007 to 2008. It has struggled with providing consistent flight schedules and losing customers to nearby Memphis.

Josh Abramson, who has served as executive director of the Tupelo airport for more than two months, said Delta is in the process of changing its fleet, and scheduling issues with the airline are a nationwide struggle that is not specific to the Tupelo area. The airport currently offers three flights a day, which is “as scheduled as we’re going to get right now,” he said. 

However, the airport is set to open its new $30-million Mississippi Air National Guard terminal in September, and a significant number of new jobs have been announced for the area.

Tupelo and Lee County Community Development Foundation president David Rumbarger said that although he does not have data on jobs lost during the recent recession, more than 940 new jobs have been announced by industries in the past fiscal year. The Tupelo area is also looking forward to 2,000 more jobs that will be added for the Toyota plant, which should expand corporate airport traffic.

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