While Hattiesburg-Laurel Regional Airport waits word on a new potential commercial carrier, it will tend to what executive director Thomas Heanue calls its “heart and lifeblood.”
A repaving of the airport runway/apron/taxiways and the construction of a seventh hanger for general aviation are expected to be underway by September.
“The runway, that’s the heart, and if we let that fail, the airport doesn’t exist, there’s nothing here,” Heanue said. “So, we’ve got to take care of the heart. It’s been 22 years, and while it’s held up very well … if we hadn’t of planned (repaving), another year or so, and we might have had some major issues out there.
“General aviation, now, that’s where our future is, that’s our lifeblood. Even if you have no (commercial) air service, even if it goes away, that’s where the future is, that’s sustainability.
Heanue, who has overseen operations for the past 12 years, said the airport still was waiting to hear from the United States Department of Transportation on whether a bid from Sky West’s ExpressJet to serve a combined Hattiesburg-Laurel/Meridian route to Dallas-Fort Worth will be approved and granted an Essential Air Service subsidy.
“We still have heard no word,” Heanue said. “But we’re hoping that with improvements coming at the right time and a new carrier, going to a good hub, and hopefully, pricing very well, we’re hoping that good things are coming and we’re going to take off.”
Commercial boardings have dipped significantly since the arrival in late 2012 of Silver Airways, which stepped into the void left when Delta Air Lines dropped service at Hattiesburg-Laurel.
Between May 2009 and August 2012, Hattiesburg-Laurel saw at least 1,000 passengers pass through its terminal in 36 of those 40 months.
Since September 2012, the airport has not welcomed 1,000 travelers in any month, and has not seen 600 fly in or out in any of the past 20 months.
But the airport has seen significant growth on the general aviation side. Hattiesburg-Laurel’s Fixed Base Operator, U.S. Aviation, has seen revenues increase 68 percent over the past five years.
The number of private planes based at the airport have more than doubled in Heanue’s tenure, going from 34 in 2002 to 75 today.
Heanue said demand has led to the construction of a seventh hangar, a 10,000-square-foot space that will house one or two jets.
“That’s where our future is,” Heanue said.
The project, which is expected to get underway in the next few months, is expected to cost about $450,000.
“It just depends on the cost of steel and how hungry people are or not hungry, the contractors,” Heanue said. “Sometimes they come in pretty low, sometimes they come in high. It just depends on who bids and how many.”
Heanue said the airport received a $250,000 Multi-Modal Grant from the Mississippi Department of Transportation. The remaining funds will be borrowed, either through a commercial bank or the Mississippi Development Authority, with user fees paying off a 10-year-note.
In September, the runway is scheduled to be closed for seven days for its first facelift in two decades.
A federal, Airport Improvement Project venture will resurface the airport’s runway, apron and taxiways in the first complete repaving project at Hattiesburg-Laurel since 1992.
Previous AIP projects at Hattiesburg-Laurel had included improvements to the terminal as well as energy-saving LEDs at the terminal and on runway/taxiways. “The things we’ve done, energy-wise, it looks like we’re saving about $1,800 a month on our power bill,” Heanue said. “That’s LED-lighting on the airfield, LED-lighting inside. We redid some doors, keeping hot air out and the cold air in.”
Heanue said federal AIP dollars would fund 95 percent of the $3.1 million runway repaving project, which was awarded to Dunn Roadbuilders of Laurel. The remaining 5 percent will be paid with state funds, including another Multi-Modal grant. “It’s pretty straight forward,” Heanue said.
“It’s just asphalt taken up, new asphalt put down and then temporary markings because they need to let it cure before they put in (permanent) ones. Then they have to groove it.”
All flights will be canceled Sept. 2 to Sept. 8.
“The idea of that was there’s just too much opportunity for bad to happen if you try to keep part of the runway open,” Heanue said. “So we told the contractor, ‘Seven days, we’re going to shut it down. We don’t care if you work 24-7, but it needs to be done in seven days.’
“That will allow us to not get in any trouble with the FAA or NTSB, stay away from any kind of accident. Then, we can kind of piecemeal the taxiways in. You can back-taxi, and do sections of them at a time and that’s less intrusive.”
Heanue said it wasn’t easy finding seven consecutive days that could be marked off the calendar.
“We’ve got charters for USM coming up pretty soon, and we know those dates right now because the schedule’s out,” Heanue said. “Then we’ve got a group that comes every other week, from Haliburton, up to Sandersville, to their headquarters, the oil workers fly out of here every other week and every other Sunday.
“So, when you start to block out the days when you have those kind of operations, there isn’t a whole lot of seven-day stretches open in there.”