Gulfport Airport Eyes Expansion

 - June 28, 2011, 5:40 AM

Aug. 29, 2005, is a date few residents of the Gulf Coast will ever forget, as Hurricane Katrina, the costliest disaster in the history of the U.S., rolled ashore. The storm devastated a swath of coastline across several states, and among the hardest-hit communities were the cities of Gulfport and Biloxi, Miss. Visitors in many coastal areas there today can still see blank concrete slabs where buildings once stood.

Yet the area has shown resilience and can offer no better evidence of that than at Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport (GPT). Like most of the area, the airport was hammered by sustained wind of up to 150 mph for approximately eight hours during the storm, according to Bruce Frallic, the airport's executive director. That wind had an effect on most of the airport's structures. The passenger terminal, which was undergoing a $50 million expansion at the time, had several open walls and suffered massive damage. The wind tore off the roof of the airport's lone FBO, located in a landmark World War II hangar, destroyed the air cargo and rental car centers, battered the control tower and took out all of the airport's navigational aids. Despite losing power and switching to generators, GPT was open to receive relief flights the next day. The first commercial flight returned 10 days later.

In the weeks following, then-transportation secretary Norman Mineta viewed the damage at the airport and vowed that GPT would be rebuilt "bigger and better."

Plan for Growth

Even before Katrina, however, the airport authority realized it had a problem with future expansion plans. The facility has a strong military presence in addition to its general aviation and commercial customers, and as far back as 1986, planners believed the general aviation area–sandwiched between an Air National Guard combat-readiness training center and a U.S. Army aviation repair facility–would need to be relocated.

The master plan called for general aviation facilities to move to the then undeveloped southwest side of the airport, and the infrastructure required for the transition, including the construction of taxiway access and installation of basic utilities, had already been started when the storm hit.

After Katrina, with an influx of federal and state aid and private investment funds totaling nearly $290 million, the airport authority made necessary repairs and continued its progress on the master plan. The commercial terminal was rebuilt–and expanded–to withstand 140-mph winds, and the southwest side was prepared for the arrival of the general aviation activities, including new taxiways, access roads and space for private hangars and two FBOs.

The provision for a second FBO was the primary reason Atlantic–which had been operating from several trailers since 2005 due to the hurricane damage to its hangar–had balked at rebuilding at the airport, according to a company spokesperson, who suggested that the airport can sustain only one FBO in the current local economic climate. Atlantic said it has not yet determined its future plans at the airport and it will continue to operate at GPT for "at least the next nine months," after Million Air's new $12 FBO facility opens in August.

Another project under development is a shared corporate hangar that will be home to the flight departments for three local companies. According to the plan, all general aviation facilities at the airport will be relocated to the new area within the next two years.

Perhaps the most visible sign of the airport's rebirth is its new control tower, which rises 171 feet above sea level, more than doubling the height of the old tower–still bearing scars from Katrina. The new tower, operational early next year, was relocated near the new general aviation area to provide controllers with a better view of the ends of all runways.

One of the key parts of the airport's reconstruction and future growth is environmental awareness. Along with infrastructure improvements that prevent wastewater and runoff from entering the watershed, a 12-year noise insulation program initiated by the airport authority targeted 1,250 existing homes within a certain noise contour that will receive improvements designed to lower the ambient noise to 45 decibels. The airport authority is paying approximately $25,000 per home, for the installation of soundproofing materials and air conditioning, while newly built homes in the area will have to conform to new noise-attenuation standards.

In terms of expansion, the airport, which is located in the Mississippi Coast Foreign Trade Zone, sees itself as a key part of a larger initiative to cast the region as a trade hub. GPT is within three miles of the city's newly rebuilt deep-water cargo port, highways linking the entire Gulf Coast and active rail lines. The airport's newly built cargo facility and its 9,000-foot runway are expected to siphon some of the air cargo traffic from Miami.