Golden Triangle Regional Airport hosted area officials March 16 to raise awareness of the airport’s growth and economic impact. Officials from Columbus, Lowndes County, Starkville, Oktibbeha County and West Point listened to a brief presentation by Executive Director Mike Hainsey followed by a Q&A.
“We are the third largest airport in the state,” Hainsey said. “Jackson’s the largest, Gulfport is the second then us. There are eight commercial service airports in Mississippi. Our business has really grown with the economic development out here. We have about 230,000 within our primary service area, which is within about 45 minutes from here. If you spread it out to a 90-minute drive, we have almost 600,000 people who can fly out of here.”
The original participating communities put in $1.25 million 40 years ago to found the airport, Hainsey said. The airport is now valued at over $30 million.
“We are very proud of our operating budget,” he said. “We have not taken any money from the communities for operations in the last 25 years. For economic development, yes, we have needed money from the community, but not for the day-in, day-out operations. We take care of ourselves through fees and grants.
“Since 2004 we’ve spent over $26 million, mostly in federal money, to improve the airport,” he said. “Some of it’s for buying land, some for paving the runways. That money has been mostly from the [Federal Aviation Administration and Mississippi Department of Transportation.]”
The airport went through a rough patch when Northwest Airlines pulled out, but was able to survive by reinventing itself.
“To give you an idea of the impact it had on our budget, Northwest had about $300,000 impact on our $1 million operating budget,” he said. “We lost 30% of our budget in one year when they left. We had to figure out a way to not go in the hole. The first year after they left we ran at a $180,000 deficit. We had to figure a way to expand our passenger base. At the same time a lot of major companies were looking to go to smaller communities, and the Link had started working on some major projects to attract companies to move in here.
“The first major project on airport property was Eurocopter,” Hainsey said. “That first 85,000-square-foot building was built by the airport and is still owned by the airport. Then we had Severstal, which brought in a lot of money and a lot of jobs. Aurora Flight Sciences started with a 20,000-square-foot facility, and now they’re up to 80,000. Paccar makes engines for big trucks. Stark Aerospace is a wholly owned subsidiary of Israeli Aerospace, and they make drones.
“All of those companies are high-tech jobs, but they’re also international jobs,” Hainsey said. “So we get a lot of international travel out of here. Now three of our top fifteen destinations are in Germany. We are doing well at a time when Delta is pulling out of many small airports.”
Columbus Air Force Base is a major airport partner, he said.
“We work really hard to support CAFB,” he said. “As everyone knows, [Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta] has said he’s like to have two rounds of Base Realignment and Closure, possibly one next year and one in 2015. Next year won’t happen, but 2015 is very possible. It’s important that our communities pull together and support our base, which is the second-busiest air base in the world.”
GTRA has added over $16 million of infrastructure that supports CAFB, Hainsey said.
“We talked last year about tornado sirens,” said Lowndes County District 5 Supervisor Leroy Brooks. “Do any of the companies out here have their own sirens?” “Severstal has one, it’s active now and in the county system,” Hainsey said. “Eurocopter is discussing it.”
“There really needs to be one in this area,” Brooks said.
“We would love to have one,” Hainsey said. “We don’t hear anything. The only thing we get is when the control tower calls and says there’s a funnel cloud out here.”
“We hear so much about Tupelo not having air service,” asked Columbus Ward 3 Councilman Charlie Box. “Can you talk about that?”
“Delta this past year retired their old propeller airplanes,” Hainsey said. “It was a 34-passenger plane that was run to several airports in Mississippi using a federal subsidy. That plane, because it was very old, was retired. The last one flew in December. It fit economically to serve Tupelo, Hattiesburg and Greenville. There’s nothing to replace it in that class. The next step up is a 50-passenger regional jet that cost about three times as much to run. What happened is that Delta announced they were pulling out of those three communities, along with about 20 other across the US, that were served solely with by that propeller airplane.
“The way the process works is that the federal department of transportation will seek bids from anyone who wants to provide that service with a subsidy,” he said. “But the subsidy has a limit on it of $200 per passenger. They’ve gone out three times now for those three airports, and all three times the only viable bid they received was from a single-engine eight-passenger small Cessna. The problem is that in the month of January Tupelo put 639 passengers on airplanes. That’s about 22 a day. Spread across two flights served by 50-passenger jets. Jet fuel is $3.50 a gallon right now, which is about $2 higher than it was several years ago. The airlines can’t make money, so their air service is not viable.”
“What about service to Dallas?” Box asked.
“The only viable company that could do that is American, and they’re in bankruptcy,” Hainsey said. “We are in talks right now with Delta to get a fourth flight. Our numbers show we’re up 10 percent for the year, and so far this month we’re up 8 percent. This past January and February we’ve put more people on airplanes than we have in the same period over the last 10 years. Our numbers are growing, and they have to in order to remain viable with the price of fuel what it is.
“We are the only small airport that is not subsidized,” Hainsey said. “We don’t ever want to be subsidized, because if you get subsidized you can’t grow.”