TUPELO — Even without passengers, cargo or fuel, a Boeing 747 weighs 400,000 pounds.
Universal Asset Management, the aircraft recycling company, has landed several of them at Tupelo Regional Airport in the past two years. The company takes apart the retired air titans — and other large planes — at its disassembly operation at the airport and sells the engines and other parts to customers around the world.
Once the planes land they must traverse the old runway to UAM’s facility. And that runway is beaten, battered and in need of repair.
In the past, airport and UAM workers have used thick steel plates to cover large dips and problem areas on the old runway to ease the planes onto the airport’s apron, but a permanent fix is badly needed.
It’s the airport’s responsibility to fix the runway, but a permanent fix will cost about $700,000.
And the airport doesn’t have the money for it.
“We’re having to keep it up with temporary fixes,” said airport executive director Josh Abramson.
The most recent temporary fix is laying down “pug,” a mixture of aggregate, asphalt and other materials spread over the surface. That cost a fraction of the longer-term fix, about $20,000.
When UAM was recruited two years ago to move its operations from Walnut Ridge, Ark., to Tupelo, airport and company officials knew the runway needed to be repaired.
The airport was counting on an annual Federal Aviation Administration grant of $1 million to help cover the costs. But the amount is tied to the number of passengers that land at the airport. Falling below 10,000 boardings a year — as the airport has done the past two years — means funding is cut to $150,000 a year.
Like other companies recruited to the state, UAM received incentives to move to Tupelo.
The Mississippi Development Authority provided a $350,000 grant to help with UAM’s move to Tupelo, with most of the money used for relocation expenses. The rest of the money was to be used for infrastructure improvements.
Recently, the airport completed about $1 million — using a combination of federal, state and local money — to build a new concrete apron for UAM as the first phase in improvements. But the wallet is all but empty to repair the old runway.
That has UAM officials concerned.
“We made agreements with the city and state to employ people, and creating jobs is directly tied to having airplanes,” said Keri Wright, UAM’s chief operating officer.
UAM said it would employ 100 people within three years. It now employs about 70.
Wright said it’s not only UAM being affected by the poor condition of the runway. Customers who buy the engines and other major components of the retired aircraft fly into Tupelo, and she said a dilapidated runway presents a bad image for UAM, the airport and the city.
She said UAM and the airport are working closely together to come up with “creative solutions” for the short term and long term.
They’ll likely have to do it without much help from the FAA.
The agency is unlikely — and unable — to provide any discretionary funding that the airport can use on top of the $150,000 it will receive.
So, the airport has few other options except to look for more funding of some kind.
MDA does have an airport loan program Tupelo Regional can tap.
“But we can’t afford it on top of the yearly debt service we already have of $260,000,” Abramson said.
That debt was taken on in 2007-2008, when the Tupelo Regional Airport Authority agreed to pay two fixed-based operators $1.5 million and took on a $1.8 million note when the National Guard moved to a new facility nearby.
For now, Abramson said the temporary fixes to the runway will have to continue until some funding source emerges.
“All we can do is the temporary repairs for now,” he said. “The planes will come and we’ll follow behind them and do what we can.”
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