Of all the businesses and industries negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, airline travel was one of the hardest hit, losing 95% of its traffic because of restricted travel guidelines.
To help the airlines recover from that hit, the Federal Aviation Administration recently issued $11.62 million to airports around Mississippi, including $1,006,447 to the Hattiesburg-Laurel Regional Airport. The funds come from the latest rounds of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, a $2.2 trillion economic stimulus bill passed by the 116th U.S. Congress in response to the economic fallout caused by the virus in the United States.
“(The impact from the virus) is pretty devastating if you’re an airport, even if you’re the size that we are, so these funds are tremendous,” said Tom Heanue, executive director of the airport. “We’ve lost a lot of money; we lost our rent-a-car when Hertz went bankrupt in the nation, so they left with that income that was coming in.
“Of course, the airline went down to little or nobody on the airplanes, and we had to go to one flight a day to help the airlines. There’s no use for a 50-passenger plane twice a day with nobody on it.”
The CARES Act funds will be used mainly for cleaning and sanitizing supplies to help clean the airport’s terminal, common area and signage.
“Those are things that we didn’t have funds scheduled for, and, of course, nobody did,” Heanue said. “So, this will help to offset extra manpower for cleaning and picking up cleaning supplies and some advertising that helps make (clear the message) your local airport (is) the airport to use.
“We’re reimbursing ourselves is what we’re doing. Through this year and part of next year – we have two years to use it – what we have left over from paying ourselves back, we’re going to pay some of our debt off.”
Eliminating that debt will allow Heanue to hopefully reduce the taxpayer burden through the counties that support the airport.
Currently, the national average of passengers at airports is approximately 50-60% of pre-pandemic numbers, which is right around where the Hattiesburg-Laurel Regional Airport falls. That includes numbers from when the airport dropped its daily flights to Dallas for a new air carrier and flights to Houston.
“I emphasize that because we were doing great going to Dallas – our numbers were going up and going up,” Heanue said. “Well, when that airline decided to leave a lot of small communities, we started with a new one, but we haven’t been able to market that new one and push it because of the pandemic.
“Houston is a great hub and United is a great air carrier, and right now is a great time to travel. Prices are really low because airlines want you to get on. I think once we start to get out of the pandemic a little bit more, and when we start to push travel, I think people will enjoy flying to Houston.”
Other airports in Mississippi receiving part of the total $11.62 million administered by the FAA include the Jackson-Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport in Jackson ($3.74 million), Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport in Gulfport ($2.95 million), Golden Triangle Regional Airport in Columbus ($1.02 million), Key Field in Meridian ($1.01 million) and Tupelo Regional Airport in Tupelo ($1 million).
“This funding will help airports to withstand the drop in traffic from COVID-19 and facilitate economic development as we work to recover,” U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker said in a statement.