March 2, 2013 10:17:33 PM
Carmen K. Sisson - [email protected]
The past decade has been a bumpy ride for air travel, with bankruptcies, mergers and acquisitions dominating headlines. Major airlines have undergone massive restructuring, cutting flights, severing connections and bumping up prices to salvage diminishing profit margins. The nation's economic recession hasn't helped, with cost-conscious business travelers putting their gold cards on ice and letting frequent flier miles expire.
It is a scenario that has spelled doom for many small regional airports which have traditionally played a critical role in shuttling passengers to and from big-city airports and hubs. In some cities, once bustling terminals are now empty, sitting like hulking albatrosses on city ledgers, with little chance of ever flying high again.
Mike Hainsey remembers all too well when Northwest Airlines pulled out of Golden Triangle Regional Airport, taking three flights a day with it. The year was 2006, and he had just taken over as executive director. Immediately, he found himself faced with a problem: How does a small airport survive when it loses one-third of its budget?
The answer then, as now, lay just beyond the terminal walls. And the solution is a large part of what has enabled GTRA to not only survive but become the only regional airport in Mississippi to see an increase in passengers last year.
If airports are a mirror of the local economy, as Hainsey believes, then GTRA has good reason to like the image it sees.
It all began with American Eurocopter, a division of EADS North America, which provides helicopters for civilians, corporations, law enforcement, the United States military and Homeland Defense.
Last March, Eurocopter celebrated the delivery of its 200th Lakota helicopter to the U.S. Army. And all of those war birds were made in Lowndes County.
The airport began in 1971 as little more than an expanse of grass sitting high upon the prairie between Lowndes, Clay and Oktibbeha counties.
The leaders of the three entities, along with the leaders of Columbus, West Point and Starkville, knew that an airport was the key to industrial growth, and they began garnering support for their ambitious dream.
Stuart Vance, of Starkville, was among those early visionaries. Now in his 80s, he remembers having to fly out of the old airport on Highway 69. It was a 33-mile trip involving 13 red lights and three railroad tracks. And it was a major hassle.
After a study showed that a new airport was feasible, the three cities, along with Lowndes County, fronted the money to make the dream a reality. It was the first time the divergent entities had come together for the common good.
When Eurocopter arrived on the scene in 2003, it catapulted that dream into an entirely new dimension.
"The airport is built on a series of successes," Vance says. "Once American Eurocopter came in, it pretty much nailed us down as a world-class industrial site. The success we have had will be a stepping stone to better things."
But it could not have happened without good planning by the airport's original creators, Hainsey says.
They originally bought 1,000 acres of land, building a 6,500-foot runway but leaving room for an additional 1,500 feet, which GTRA added in June 2011. Over the years, they have sold land and bought land, and major industry -- emboldened by the success of American Eurocopter -- has sprouted from the surrounding fields.
The Golden Triangle has become an international juggernaut, and GTRA sits at the center of it all, serving as both the catalyst for growth and the beneficiary.
As one might expect, the top destinations for GTRA's air travelers are Atlanta, New York City and Washington, D.C. But the list of the top 15 destinations reveals some surprises -- three slots are filled by German cities. The Netherlands, France, Israel and Russia are also frequent destinations due to the large number of executives traveling to and from local international industries like Paccar and Severstal.
GTRA relies heavily on these industries, with business travelers making up 80 percent of its passengers and international flights making up 20 percent -- nearly double what is typical at similarly-sized airports.
Keys to success
The result has been unequivocal success for GTRA, even amid industry downturns. Last year, the airport was the only one in the state to see an increase in passengers, serving 38,758 people and boasting a 6.41 percent increase over the previous year.
Tupelo saw a 31.18 percent drop in passengers, and even Meridian, Jackson and Hattiesburg have seen decreases of 15.55 percent, 0.71 percent and 23.01 percent, respectively.
Statewide, air travel decreased 3.29 percent.
But besides the Golden Triangle's proximity to an influx of international industry, what else contributes to GTRA's success?
Hainsey believes it is convenience, coupled with old-fashioned Southern charm.
On a recent visit with the Aliceville, Ala. Rotary Club, Hainsey was surprised to find that two-thirds of the Rotarians regularly fly out of GTRA. Most cited the close proximity and small size as reasons they chose it over Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport in Birmingham, Ala.
People don't like big airports, Hainsey says. They don't like the impersonal touch and security line hassles.
"If you're a frequent flyer here, you walk up and Rhonda, the station manager, is going to ask how you are doing, where you are headed," he says. "If you get to the line and discover, oh gosh, you've got your grandfather's pocket knife that you always carry with you and it's about to get confiscated, it's very common for people to go back to their cars or bring it (to my office). I'll hold on to it or mail it to them or whatever."
Price is a big factor as well, and Hainsey says he has worked with Delta Airlines to get GTRA's fares competitive with those of Birmingham, Memphis and Jackson.
It was a simple matter of showing Delta the advantages, he says. In turn, Delta worked with Hainsey to make international travelers a priority, working out flight times between GTRA and Atlanta to make sure they connected well.
"This flight will leave here at 4 p.m.," Hainsey says, gesturing toward a plane sitting on the tarmac. "It will get in Atlanta at 6 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. There's two hours in Atlanta. On an international flight, you can be in Paris by tomorrow morning."
"Here in the South sometimes, it's just about working relationships, knowing the people that are doing the planning," he says of Delta's responsiveness to GTRA's needs. "We've been very fortunate that it's all worked out for us."
The upcoming year will heavily involve trying to meet the needs of Columbus Air Force Base as it struggles under sequestration and infrastructure upgrades, Hainsey says.
Friday night, the airport was planning for its first night as a "primary divert base" for CAFB. Although 40 percent of their traffic is CAFB training flights, now the runway will be extra busy as the air base sends more traffic to GTRA while it undergoes an expansion of its main runway.
There are also concerns that sequestration will result in a cut in funding to the airport's air traffic control tower, which the Air Force requires for CAFB's flights.
Hainsey said no matter what happens, GTRA is committed to keeping the air traffic control tower open and CAFB planes in the air -- even if it means the airport has to find another way to fund the $30,000 per month cost.
It's the right thing to do, he says. The base is important to the area, and GTRA supports its mission.
Much of the airport's future success, like its past, will rely upon economic growth. Before he retires, he expects to see another runway constructed to serve the needs of new industries that flock to the Golden Triangle Global Aerospace Park. The recent terminal improvements included a flat roofline that will make possible a second-story, with jet bridges between the terminal and the aircraft.
"It all depends on the growth of the area; the future of our growth depends on the future of industrial growth," Hainsey says. "This is a team effort from all the communities. We've lost a lot of jobs, but we've gained a lot of jobs. The jobs we've gained have been high-paying, high-tech or both. These are the people who travel, and they travel international."
It's something he looks forward to seeing happen. The walls of his office are lined with posters of various aircraft. Several model planes sit on his desk. A floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall window gives him a bird's-eye view of the planes arriving and departing.
"This is a perfect job," he says. I have a job where I overlook a runway. I'm working around something that I've known since I went into the Air Force Academy in 1973. I'm 40 years into aviation. And we're a proven model that regional can work."
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.