Despite bumps, business grows at Houma airport
April 12, 2012
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  • April 1, 2012

    By Cara Bayles

    Despite a tough economy and a slowdown in offshore drilling affecting helicopter trips, the Houma-Terrebonne Airport has both grown the region’s economy and experienced its own growth in recent years.

    The tarmac and runways are buzzing with activity, home to corporate jets soaring off the taxiway, oil-spill response planes and helicopters carrying workers to and from deepwater platforms in the Gulf of Mexico.

    The flight load is not quite back to where it was before the BP oil spill, according to David Slayter, executive director of the Houma-Terrebonne Airport Commission. Before 2010, Slayter said, the airport averaged at least 87,000 flights per year. In 2011, it handled 72,667 flights.

    Still, the airport continues to grow.

    “All you have to do is drive out there to see that it’s a tremendous jewel for Terrebonne Parish and we’re so lucky to have it,” said Parish President Michel Claudet. “It’s an economic engine for our area and necessary for servicing the offshore industry that’s about to start growing again.”

    In 2003, the airport commissioned an economic impact report from the Coats & Cox market analysis firm. It found that the airport, its industrial park and their tenants would bring $3 billion to Terrebonne, Lafourche, St. Mary and Assumption parishes over a five-year period.

    Slayter said those numbers are now out of date.

    “In 2005 and 2006, the area exploded in growth and tenants, so we know currently those impacts are significantly higher,” Slayter said.

    And in August 2011, the airport won a “Foreign Trade Zone” designation, which allows its tenants to avoid or delay paying certain tariffs on exports and imports. Since the U.S. Department of Commerce granted the designation, the airport has landed three new air tenants and has received queries from two other companies interested in the industrial park, Slayter said. And Era Helicopters, an existing tenant, has expanded its lease by another 16 acres.

    “We decided we wanted to reach further out and see if we could bring in new economic blood to grow our community, our parish and our region,” he said. “Most of them have to do with technology, GPS, upholstery work and special maintenance services for aircraft, and if enough customers here are interested, maybe they will move here.”

    Steve Vassallo, CEO of the Terrebonne Economic Development Authority, said some of the airport’s existing tenants could be used to recruit other businesses. A major airport tenant is Lafayette-based Petroleum Helicopters Inc., which itself owns the largest fleet of small- and medium-sized helicopters in the U.S. The airport’s entire helicopter flight load for 2011 totaled 55,198 trips, and Slayter estimates PHI moved about 172,000 passengers through the airport last year.

    “When you see that kind of volume, you can make a strong case to suppliers, vendors and related businesses to have those companies relocate or expand to Terrebonne,” Vassallo said.

    The airport still has space left, but its placement is not ideal, said Slayter, who is beginning to eye 405 acres south of the airport’s existing 1,760 acres.

    “We are just starting to look into it,” he said, adding that not all of the land would even be used for flight or manufacturing purposes but could be leased for retail space or a golf course.

    “Airports don’t like neighborhoods to move in nearby because then they’ll complain about the noise,” he said.

    The commission is developing a master plan that will determine its path for the next 20-30 years. Nothing has been finalized yet, but it is considering plans to physically separate helicopter and fixed-wing operations, build up its taxiway infrastructure and relocate navigational aids to free space for hangars and taxiways.

    “Things have really just picked up in the last couple years,” Slayter said. “We’re just trying to catch up.”

    Date: 2012-04-01