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Airport upgrades critical to post-Katrina tourism recovery

23rd July 2012   ·   0 Comments

By Chris Villere and Christopher Tidmore
Contributing Writers

By early 2010, the Louis Armstrong International Airport had fallen into what many of its employees feared would be its final decline. According to Iftikar Ahmad, Director of Aviation for the Kenner-based facility, the airport only had “one-third of the necessary staff available” to provide the basic services of the airport. More dangerously, construction projects were taking place, “that did not have contracts behind them,” leaving little guarantee that the public dollars invested would actually render an improved airport infrastructure.

Today, Armstrong has managed to stabilize his staffing and construction bidding processes. But, such moves are only the beginning, Ahmad maintained, if New Orleans wants to return to pre-Katrina visitor levels. The Aviation Director and his allies in the Tourism Industry have called for massive infrastructure investments and improvements at Armstrong, capital improvements that could carry huge costs, but promise to reap strong rewards for the local economy.

The decline of the airfield formally known as Moysant began long before the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina significantly reduced the number of in-bound flights and aero-carriers. For decades after its construction in an empty plot of land near the Mississippi River, New Orleans’ aerodrome could brag of being one of the largest commercial airports in the country.

The fact that MSY tags regularly hung on luggage arrivals from Honduras to Columbia to Cuba proved the boast that New Orleans International served as the “Gateway to Latin America”. Direct flights to non-U.S. destinations were the rule rather than the exception as visitors flocked to patronize the city’s internationally known medical services at Ochsner, educational destinations from Tulane to LSU (just to the north), culture, nightlife, music, food, and Mardi Gras.

But, as the Crescent City maintained its lead in most of the above categories, it lost its prominence as an international and national hub in the wake of deregulation of the 1970s. According to Mark Romig, president and CEO of the New Orleans Tourism and Marketing Corporation, New Orleans did not invest in Moysant the way Atlanta, Houston, or Dallas-Fort Worth did in their massive internationally focused airfields. As domestic airlines created the hub system, MSY (later renamed Armstrong) fell behind, risking New Orleans’ reputation as a “world-class city.”

The Louis Armstrong Inter­national Airport has not undergone significant renovation since 1974. As Iftikar Ahmad joked to The Louisiana Weekly, at a breakfast briefing on progress of current renovations to the airport, “What does a world-class airport look like? When everyone is treated like a VIP.” At the moment, it is difficult to think of the Louis Armstrong International Airport as a world-class facility that enhances the enthusiasm of returning residents or frequent tourists.

The baggage claim area resembles an underground bunker. “Direct flights have become more difficult to come by,” noted WWL news anchor Dennis Woltering, who served as emcee for the recent briefing for members of the media.

The major obstacle to improving Armstrong field, Ahmad foresees, goes beyond just upgrading the current facilities. As he explained, the New Orleans Airport was “on pace to charge airlines three times more than Nashville” for flights. This trend could have proved disastrous for New Orleans, making it more expensive for airlines to provide service into New Orleans and more economically challenging for tourists to visit.

“The airport facilitated over $2.8 billion in spending to New Orleans area last year. The tourism industry supports 74,000 jobs,” explained Mark Romig. A properly functioning airport is not a concern for only those frequenting the airport, because many more people would be affected by deteriorating airplane service into New Orleans.

The renovations set to take place to the Louis Armstrong International Airport include a Dooky Chase’s restaurant, a New Orleans Saints-dedicated apparel store, and up to date arrival and departure monitors—standard in other airports across the country.

Long-term, Aviation Board member David Campbell told the Weekly that plans are in place to build an new, state-of-the-art terminal on the Veterans Blvd. side of the runways. “This would allow us to design a facility that could easily compete with Atlanta and Houston.” The proposed facility would be paid for out of ongoing airport funds, with some limited taxpayer support.

These kinds of capital investments at Armstrong, difficult though they may be in the current budgetary fiscal climate, are necessary if New Orleans has any chance of maintaining and rebuilding its tourism industry. “We would like to see pre-Katrina capacity,” Romig explained the goal of his membership in supporting improvements at Armstrong.

Right now, the airport serves roughly 8.5 million passengers per year compared to 10 million passengers before Katrina. To add capacity, New Orleans must make it more attractive for airlines to add direct routes to and from New Orleans. This task involves implementing a long-term cost strategy.

“Keeping the price low” for airlines is paramount to making New Orleans more attractive for the addition of possible routes, maintained Armstrong’s Aviation Director. To do this, the airport must increase non-airline revenue the airport receives. The expected renovations will do just that: “Food and beverage concessions we think will go up $2 to $3 million,” Ahmad projected. The same increase is expected in Hudson Bookseller sales. Lower cost to airlines allows them to discuss adding more service, which may not have been feasible previously.

Decreased expenses may encourage some new carriers, but that alone will make little difference if the city does not join with the hospitality industry to promote tourism “awareness to offset those times of the year that really need it,” such as the summertime, when visitation falls drastically, according to Romig.

Moreover, the Crescent City continues to be seen by regular travelers as a weekend destination, and the flight schedules maintained by the airlines tend to reflect this fact. “We need to shift as much as we can to mid-week travel.” That shift requires giving people more ways to travel to New Orleans on a Sunday or Monday, and staying through the week.
Hence, his organization’s view of the fundamental role that improvements at Armstrong must play. Still, Romig remains optimistic. “Our tourism industry was still on the road to recovery in 2012.” To skeptics who question the need for more tax investment, he noted that for New Orleans to be a world-class city, all of its visitors need to be treated like VIPs.

Still, Campbell did reveal to this newspaper that fiscal worries can be put aside on one matter. The long discussion to build a new East-West runway into St. Charles Parish (and over part of the James Business Park) has been put on the proverbial backburner. Improved guidance technology, along with a change in flight numbers, means that a new terminal location alone may allow Armstrong to double its flight capacity without the greater noise activity that another runway might provide.

At least, that was the critique that Kenner and St. Charles residents had in opposing the East-West landing strip.

This article originally published in the July 23, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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