Airports and FBOs start cleaning up

 - October 23, 2006, 7:59 AM

Dial the number for Million Air at New Orleans Lakefront Airport (NEW) and there is nothing on the other end. No recorded message about phone lines, no fast-busy tone to indicate a saturated circuit…nothing.

The eerie silence is indicative of the lack of hard information available about the airport on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, at least as of late last month. Only select personnel have been allowed to visit the site.

Sue Sommers is v-p of Atlantic Aviation, which also has a facility at Lakefront alongside Million Air and a second at Louis Armstrong International Airport (MSY) in New Orleans. She told AIN she’s in constant touch with NEW’s director of aviation, Randy Taylor, but there’s still much more that remains unknown about when the airport might reopen.

Sommers said, “My guess is that it will probably be at least three months before there is anything going on over there. The runways and taxiways are still there, but the buildings and fuel farm have been devastated. Our facility is still standing, but several walls are blown out and the high-water line shows at the top of the counter in our passenger lobby.”

One unanswered question is whether the flooding might have compromised the load-bearing capacity of the ramps, runways and taxiways. Core testing can determine the strength of the ground base under the pavement, but there has been no word from the airport on how soon testing can be completed. In the meantime, just cleaning up the mess of scattered and twisted debris–buildings, airplanes, cars and even boats–is the first priority.

Million Air NEW is owned by Ken Allison, who also owns Million Air franchises at Asheville, N.C.; Cincinnati; and Chicago Midway Airports. The hangar at NEW was virtually destroyed, though its terminal remains standing. The company has plans to truck in temporary buildings to support relief operations, which it hopes will bring some activity back to NEW. Atlantic did not fare much better, its recently remodeled passenger lobby and terminal now caked with filth and drying mud from the lake.

Relief Efforts Keep Traffic Brisk

The good news for Atlantic is that after the storm its facility at MSY was fully operational and seeing lots of traffic. In a telephone interview late last month, Sommers said, “Activity is at normal levels for September, which is typically one of our slower months. Traffic usually picks up in October because of the start of the convention season. That is obviously not going to happen this year, but we anticipate that the relief effort will generate comparable traffic. The Reverend Jesse Jackson is in our lobby right now.”

Sommers said Atlantic has continued to pay its employees from both facilities through the catastrophe and has relocated most of the available employees from NEW to MSY to help handle the expected influx of traffic through the rest of the year.

Katrina also hit Alabama and Mississippi hard, in part because the destructive swath of the storm was some 200 miles in diameter. That’s unusual for a hurricane of that strength and explains why the destruction was so widespread along the Gulf region.

In Gulfport, Miss., FBO Avcenter at Gulfport-Biloxi International is operating at a brisk clip, despite having to use tents and trailers. Customer-service representative Sheila Abel told AIN late last month that the FBO still had no catering available and all rental car arrangements had to be conducted from the airline terminal, but the fuel farm was undamaged and traffic was steady.

A large percentage of incoming traffic to the FBO is relief-oriented, Abel said, with a mix of private aircraft delivering supplies, military operations and flights that are shuttling medical personnel in and out of the airport. She said, “About 85 percent of the city has had power restored. The worst-hit area was along Highway 90 and by the coast, of course. There are no hotel rooms available, but the International House of Pancakes is open near the airport, and some of the fast-food restaurants– mostly the ones near the interstate–are opening with limited menus.”