Airport Profile: New Orleans Lakefront

 - September 19, 2006, 2:47 PM

When Addie Fanguy finally managed to catch a ride to New Orleans Lakefront Airport (NEW) with some National Guard friends two days after Hurricane Katrina laid waste to the Gulf Coast last August, he didn’t know what to expect, but he didn’t have high hopes.

About half a mile from the airport, as he and his friends drove carefully past abandoned houses, flooded cars scattered upside down and sideways, boats in yards, piles of unrecognizable debris oozing the smell of moldy drywall and rotting household goods, something familiar in the parking lot of the mangled McDonald’s restaurant on the corner of Downman Road and Morrison Road caught his eye.

He looked more closely. “I saw two of my sofas sitting on the corner,” he recalled. The storm and floodwaters had relocated the couches half a mile from Million Air’s FBO terminal at Lakefront Airport. As manager of the FBO, Fanguy needed to assess the damage and figure out how he could get the facility open and put his team back to work. “I knew it was trashed,” he said, but once he saw those couches, “I knew it was going to be as bad as I thought.”

The floodwall that is supposed to keep water out of the neighborhoods next to the airport didn’t help against the surge of Lake Pontchartrain that poured over the airport and into the nearby neighborhoods. About 40 cars were scattered on the airport, having floated or flown over the floodwall. An old Learjet that wasn’t flyable arrowed into the fountain that graces the entrance to the airport terminal building.

While the water had receded, the entire airport was covered with a thick coating of cement-hard mud, broken furniture, waterlogged Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs and assorted other automobiles, fuel trucks and pieces of buildings. “There was not one square foot clear of debris,” Fanguy said. And the elegant Walnut Room restaurant in the terminal building was gutted, the first time it had suffered damage since it opened 52 years ago.

It’s easy for anyone who doesn’t live near the Gulf Coast to assume that people who reside and work there didn’t plan too well for the disaster. But Fanguy, a former New Orleans Police Department homicide detective, knows what hurricanes can do and had crafted detailed contingency plans with Ken Allison, owner of the Lakefront FBO and five other Million Air bases. The plans included arranging for a temporary 2,200-sq-ft office trailer and generators to provide electricity. “We could have opened three weeks after the storm,” said Allison, if the airport had been able to open.

Fanguy and Allison returned to the airport a few days later in an Arcadian Ambulance helicopter, flying out of Baton Rouge. The Million Air terminal building was completely destroyed, including the new pilots’ lounge, which had just seen a $400,000 renovation with five computers, a pool table, wireless Internet access and a secluded television room. The Million Air ramp was used as a staging area by the National Guard, which evacuated more than 4,000 people in two days after the hurricane.

Allison kept all employees on the payroll through the storm and its aftermath, sending half of them to company-provided apartments to work at his Asheville, N.C. Million Air FBO. “It’s hard to keep morale up,” Fanguy said. “This helps keep the family-business mentality; we all feel like we’re part of it.”

It took three weeks for cellphone service to be restored and two months to clean up the airport. Air BP Aviation Services brought in temporary fuel tanks and fuel trucks. “BP didn’t charge us for the trucks until we were back on our feet,” Fanguy said.

“Everyone wanted to help,” said Allison. Even something as simple as new furniture proved unobtainable after the storm. Value City Furniture shipped sofas and lobby furnishings from the Midwest, and Cincinnati-based construction firm Bascon signed on to help Million Air rebuild the structures that remained standing and the planned new Million Air terminal.

The old Hangar 17, damaged beyond repair, was torn down in March. Construction of the new Million Air terminal is scheduled to begin this month, pending all the required local approvals and site preparation. Million Air’s new multimillion-dollar jet center will include new hangars, offices and an all-concrete terminal that is easy to clean after a storm.

Bascon also restored the old art-deco Moffett hangar, which dates from the mid-1930s when the airport was built on six million cubic yards of fill.

The Moffett hangar has an unusual roof, made of sections of concrete slabs, most of which survived the storm. A couple of slabs fell through onto the floor and, amazingly, landed intact. The concrete walls were unscathed, thanks to huge windows on either side of the hangar that blew out, allowing the hurricane-force winds to flow through unimpeded.

Million Air took over the lease on the old McDermott International corporate hangar, which was occupied by Lakefront FBO Atlantic Aviation before the storm.

For those Lakefront visitors who are nostalgic for a blast from the past, stop by Million Air’s temporary office and walk past the comfy Value City lounge chairs to the utility room on the south side of the trailer. There sits the only survivor of Hurricane Katrina’s destruction of the Million Air facilities, a 27-year-old Amana 18 refrigerator that was found in the rubble and still runs perfectly.

Airport Infrastructure Impedes Airport Revival

Atlantic, which is still paying for a long-term lease on a 25,000-sq-ft hangar and land at Lakefront, has not yet decided whether or not to return to the airport, according to Sue Sommers, Atlantic Aviation vice president for sales and marketing. The hangar, she said, “is going to have to be bulldozed. Our main lease is trashed.”

Without an ATC tower at Lakefront, she said, business aviation traffic there has not picked up, and Atlantic Aviation is waiting until the local infrastructure improves. Meanwhile, the company has 13 years remaining on its lease with the New Orleans Levy Board, which owns Lakefront Airport. “We’re hanging onto that [lease] until we make a decision,” she said.

At Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, Atlantic Aviation’s FBO suffered little more than water damage to carpets. Traffic is busy, according to Sommers. “The city’s coming back, and we hope one day Lakefront will come back. They suffered huge damages there.”

Lakefront’s other FBO, Aviaport Business Jet Center, is also operating from temporary facilities due to major damage to its building. Business is slowly picking up, a company spokesman said, but with only one runway open, no tower, no ILS and no official weather observations, pilots flying into Lakefront are restricted to higher minimums using the GPS or VOR approaches. Lakefront used to have local U.S. Customs officers, and there is no word on when, or if, they’ll be back.

David Cusimano, president of Lakefront flight school Gulf Coast Aviation, said business is OK, but there are still infrastructure problems. Gulf Coast’s trailer office has electricity, due to its location next to the terminal building, but there is still no landline telephone service.

The beautiful 1930s terminal building still needs a roof, eight months after the storm, and the interior suffers more damage every time it rains, Cusimano said. Gulf Coast’s fleet includes three airplanes, with two more due to arrive this month. “There’s definitely a market here,” he said, “if we can get the airport back in business.”

Conventions resumed at the Ernest M. Morial Convention Center in March, and since then, said Million Air’s Fanguy, “traffic has been picking up.” The FAA is working on adding a portable ILS at the airport.