November 14, 2012 11:44:10 AM
Carmen K. Sisson - [email protected]
As new economic development continues to fill the once-empty acreage at Golden Triangle Regional Aerospace Industrial Park, the adjacent Golden Triangle Regional Airport is seeing a spillover effect, with more passengers than ever.
The airport is a mirror of the growing local economy. Since 2003, $4.5 billion in new industry has made Columbus home, resulting in more than 2,000 workers flooding into the area for positions at American Eurocopter, Severstal, Paccar, Stark Aerospace and Aurora Flight Services.
To manage operations on the ground, their corporate leadership spends a great deal of time in the air, traveling between cities, and sometimes between continents, brokering deals, attending conferences and handling affairs at global headquarters and partner industries.
As regional airports around the country struggle to remain economically sound, GTRA is flying high on the updraft created from these international business travelers and an influx of international students from Mississippi State University, GTRA Executive Director Mike Hainsey told the Rotary Club of Columbus Tuesday.
In October, the airport saw its busiest month in a decade, serving more than 8,000 passengers and averaging a 90 percent passenger load factor, compared with the previous all-time high of 81 percent. Last year, GTRA served 75,000 passengers.
And where are these frequent flyers headed?
The majority are flying to Atlanta, not as a connection for another flight, but as a destination. The second and third most popular destinations are Washington, D.C. and New York. Among the top 15 destinations, three slots are occupied by German cities.
But more than convenience may be responsible for the passenger surge.
Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport, in Birmingham, Ala., is more than two hours away. Airports in Jackson and Memphis are nearly three hours away. Yet many cost-conscious travelers in the past made the drive, because fares were typically lower.
That, too, has changed at GTRA. Three years ago, Hainsey renegotiated fares with Delta Air Lines, demonstrating to them the advantages of being able to offer competitive pricing with Birmingham and Jackson.
Hainsey won those negotiations, resulting in a win for local passengers as well.
To keep pace with the anticipated growth, GTRA has spent $23 million on infrastructure improvements since 2003, with most of the funding coming from the Federal Aviation Authority and the Mississippi Department of Transportation.
Fifty new parking places were added in March, along with increased parking lot lighting and a reconfigured entrance and exit to facilitate easier traffic flow. A major terminal expansion was completed in 2010.
A $350,000 MDOT grant funded hangar renovations for Columbus Air Force Base, which will be flying out of GTRA while their primary runway undergoes its first resurfacing since 1958.
In June 2011, GTRA made improvements to its own runway with a 1,500-foot expansion, creating an 8,002-foot asphalt strip suitable for larger, heavier aircraft.
Hainsey is hoping Delta will add a fourth daily flight in the future, but he isn't looking for a return of the Memphis connection, which was discontinued in September 2011. The Dallas connection, discontinued in February 2005, isn't likely to return either, considering the dismal 25 percent load factor when it was in operation.
If a Dallas connection returned, it would most likely be through American Airlines, which has a Dallas hub, but until AA emerges from Chapter 11 bankruptcy, that's improbable, Hainsey said. And Southwest Airlines, headquartered in Dallas, has no interest in talking with small, regional airports like GTRA, he said.
But there are advantages to being small. On-time rates, at 84 percent, slightly exceed the 82 percent national average. And check-ins are less of a hassle thanks to shorter security lines.
One new change is on the horizon that may not be met with an outpouring of customer enthusiasm.
Beginning in January, the Transportation Security Administration's new, advanced imaging technology is expected to be in place at GTRA. The screening mechanism, also known as "whole body imaging" or "full body scanning," has been unpopular with some air travelers around the nation, but GTRA customers will still be able to opt for a "pat-down" if they prefer.
And there is a bright spot for passengers 12 and under or 75 and older -- changes in TSA rules now exempt them from having to remove their shoes or light outerwear during the security check.
GTRA was established in 1971 through a partnership with the cities of Columbus, Starkville and West Point, along with Lowndes and Oktibbeha counties.
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.