It’s been almost a year since Golden Triangle Regional Airport Executive Director Mike Hainsey secured the local matching funds for a $1.5 million federal grant to be used to secure west-bound commercial passenger service for the airport.
Raising that money — $500,000 from the Golden Triangles cities and counties, along with $250,000 in waived fees and services from the airport itself — turned out to be the easy part.
Early on, GTRA focused its attention on flights to Dallas on American Airlines. But those efforts have been delayed as the airline industry continues to re-invent itself, mainly through consolidation.
As American Airlines continues its negotiations to consolidate with U.S. Airways, GTRA’s efforts to expand commercial air travel are in a holding pattern.
That is not to say that there has not been some growth at GTRA.
The number of private planes flying in and out of GTRA has increased modestly over the years, but the real boom in air travel has come through an increase in corporate and executive air travel.
“We call it general aviation,” Hainsey said. “That’s everything from small private planes like Cessnas to the private corporate air services. General aviation accounts for 37 percent of our traffic.”
Mickey Ratliff, who has been the sole provider of non-commercial airline fuel at GTRA for almost 30 years, says general aviation has grown steadily over the years.
“I probably sell 800,000 to 900,000 gallons of fuel each year and all of that is for corporate and private planes,” Ratliff said. “The number of private planes has grown a little, but the biggest increase is for corporate planes.”
At GTRA, that is pretty much the exclusive domain of one company, Nicholas Air, which has operated at GTR since 1997 but has enjoyed explosive growth over the last few years under the guidance of its young owner, a man whose name is familiar in the Golden Triangle.
Nicholas Air takes flight
Nicholas Air traces its origins to the arrival of steel executive John Correnti in Lowndes County. While John Correnti focused his attention on establishing Severstal (now Steel Dynamics Inc.), his 16-year-old son, Nicholas, (better known as N.J.) seized on a opportunity to turn his passion for flying into a business. With his father’s help, he purchased a twin Cessna 340 and started Nicholas Air, which relied almost exclusively on providing air travel for executives from the Russian-owned steel company.
By then, N.J. was already an experienced pilot, having taken his first flying lessons at age 12. By the time he started Nicholas Air, he had accumulated more than a thousand hours of flying time and had piloted four different types of aircraft.
But Nicholas Air really took off in 2006 when N.J. left his job at Severstal to focus his full attention on Nicholas Air.
The timing could not have been better, as it turned out, he says.
“That was about the time that the economy began to tank,” Correnti said. “Big companies couldn’t afford to operate their big jets anymore. We were the solution. When the economy was bad, we really started to grow.
“In the last three years, our business has just been booming. We grew by 35 percent last year alone. And we’ve gone from that one airplane to a fleet of 16 and have 80 employees.”
In December, Nicholas Air made its latest addition to its fleet – a 19-seat Citation Latitude, which Correnti says offers a more spacious, elegant flying experience with a stand-up cabin and a wider cabin area.
The typical Nicholas Air flight accommodates five to six passengers. Its emphasis is on luxury air travel for executives, offering jet lease service, jet-share service, by-hour programs (15 to 60 hours of flight time) and aircraft management.
The company flies throughout the U.S., Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean.
Spreading the wealth
While there is no question the growth of Nicholas Air has benefited GTRA, Correnti says the impact could be even greater.
“We love the community and the people. That’s why we are still here. I think general aviation here could be much bigger, but there’s a lot of things that go into that. There are some politics involved. It is what it is, I guess.”
Hainsey acknowledges that GTRA’s volume of general aviation is on the “low average level,” but adds that is in part by design.
“If you’re thinking of it just in terms of percentages, that’s low,” he said. “But it’s also misleading because the real bulk of our traffic — 57 percent — is from Columbus Air Force Base. General aviation has been picking up with the increase in business jet traffic from the industries in the area.”
While GTRA doesn’t receive direct funds from its association with CAFB, there are compelling reasons why the relationship remains important to the airport and the community, Hainsey said.
“Aside from us thinking that it is the right thing to do, it also is a rule from the FAA. The vast majority of CAFB traffic doesn’t stop here — they just do practice procedures and landings and return to the base. On weekends, however, they do often operate from here, including spending the night because the base is closed on Saturday.
“By operating out of here, the pilots can do their training and still be home at night.”
Hainsey says the current mix of commercial, general aviation and military flight has worked well to date.
Options plentiful for private planes
One limit to the growth of small, private plane traffic at GTRA is that there are other options available.
Columbus businessman Boyce Adams has been flying private aircraft since age 14 and worked for the FAA for a year before returning home to Columbus. He is currently a consultant for Southern Airways, a small, relatively new airline based in Olive Branch.
Adams, who regularly flies out of GTRA, said the abundance of small airports means owners of small planes have numerous options.
“For airports like Lowndes County Airport and (George M. Bryan Airport) in Starkville, private air traffic is their bread and butter.” Adams says. “That’s especially true for the Lowndes County airport, and now that they’ve added fuel service there, they are a lot more attractive than they used to be. In some cases, the smaller airports don’t charge some of the fees that the larger airports charge.”
From where he sits, Hainsey does not see a big growth in small, private plane traffic at GTRA.
“We don’t expect any growth in the small aircraft traffic, primarily because the cost of fuel combined with cost of a new aircraft has dwindled that market down,” he said. “We do expect continued growth in the business market.
“Nicholas Air does a great business in that area,” he added.
Correnti said he would like to grow that segment at GTRA.
“The way I see it, it should be 50-50 between general aviation and commercial and military,” he said. “That’s something we’d love to see. That’s our take on it.”