A tale of 2 airports, coping post-Katrina

GULFPORT - Comparing complex things like airports is a difficult task, even for two airports that share a battering by Hurricane Katrina.

There's little disagreement that Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport is much further along in its recovery than Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport. New Orleans had almost as many passengers leaving in August as Gulfport-Biloxi had leave for the first eight months of the year.

The difference, though, is that Gulfport-Biloxi has seen increases in both flights and seats available, while New Orleans' numbers are down in all counts.

"Here in New Orleans, we're definitely in a more difficult situation with our traffic counts being so low on passenger service," interim Airport Director Sean Hunter said. "Passenger service is increasing in Gulfport and in Baton Rouge, while we're trying to get back to where we were pre-Katrina.

"I hope those guys sustain their level of growth, but I'm pretty optimistic that some of that will leak back to Armstrong Airport."

Officials here have a mammoth expansion and rebuilding effort under way, betting that South Mississippi's optimistic outlook will fill up whatever they build.

They've gotten so many balls in the air they've recently produced a simplified tracking summary for all the ongoing projects.

That would be 21 in all, and depending when you stop counting, the dollars being expended add up to jaw-dropping amounts.

"It's about $163 million all together right now," Gulfport-Biloxi Executive Director Bruce Frallic said. "Before we complete the terminal which will be in mid-2007, that number will be up to almost $200 million. And if we were to push out another two more years, it will be $248 million."

Like the airport here, New Orleans is trying to settle Katrina claims with their insurance carriers. They had about $20 million in damage, mostly to ancillary facilities like private hangers and the FedEx and UPS sort facilities.

Two concourses were damaged, some as a result of using the airport as an evacuation center and makeshift hospital. To add insult to injury, a February tornado knocked out several more jet bridges.

Katrina's impact in New Orleans combined with a struggling airline industry has kept the airport's recovery down. There are currently 109 daily departures compared with 167 before the storm.

"We've managed to get back to 70 percent of our pre-Katrina flight schedule," Hunter said. "That's about 12,000 seats in the market out of 21,000. We expect in the next few months of returning traffic at the rate of about 1½ flights per month."

The numbers of flights that have returned are higher by percentage than the seats available because airlines are shifting regional jets onto those routes. They are mothballing older, bigger planes and trying to increase their profit margins by flying smaller planes with load factors, or percentage of seats sold.

The readjusting of airline fleets has also affected Gulfport-Biloxi, where Delta plans to stop a daily nonstop flight to Orlando on Wednesday and reallocate its 50-passenger jet.

Gulfport-Biloxi still has seen a 120 percent increase in seats available. Officials are in talks with carriers currently serving the market to expand and are trying to lure new carriers.

They say they are drawing more people from the Northshore, Hattiesburg and from areas west of Mobile.

"There are a lot of factors for that," Frallic said. "The No. 1 thing is convenience, and that's right up next to airfare."

Those new passengers can get to the airport in about an hour. They find an airport where fares are competitive and one where it's getting easier to go west, for example, with American Airlines flying to Dallas-Fort Worth.

Both markets have seen dramatic shifts in their demographics. Before the storm, Gulfport-Biloxi had about a 55-45 split between business and leisure-convention travelers. Now it's 85 percent business.

"Our market has been purely a leisure-tourist market," Hunter said. "It's been a predictable market for our carriers with a lot of folks booking in advance, tickets at reduced rates."

Now, New Orleans is less predictable, but in some ways the higher percentage of business travelers are more attractive. They purchase tickets at the last minute and at higher fares.

Microsoft recently canceled a series of meetings that would have brought in 30,000 visitors, citing lack of flights. Hunter said they think that will be a blip on their radar and that other conventions and large meetings are booking returns to New Orleans.

South Mississippi would like to be a bigger player in the convention market, and airport officials feel their expansion plans will help make that leap.

"I think we're going to a new level, a significantly different level than we were before," Frallic said.

Don Hammack can be reached at 896-2326.