By Marty Russell

Daily Journal

When the Tupelo Airport Authority contracted about a year ago to update its master plan for capital improvements, there were two airlines operating out of the facility and dreams of boarding 70,000 passengers a year by the end of the plan’s forecast period in the year 2015.

But while the consultants pieced together the plan based on those assumptions, the airport got some bad news – one of its carriers was leaving. Boardings dropped from 1,550 in March of 1995 to just 941 last month.

Still, the $81,000 study, of which the Federal Aviation Administration paid 90 percent, pointed out some needs at the decade-old facility that should be addressed regardless of the number of passengers embarking there.

But the bulk of the improvements suggested in the plan developed by Memphis-based Greiner consultants may have to be deferred until the airport can attract a new carrier to the facility and boardings increase.

“The best we knew everything was going to go along like it was,” Roger Blickensderfer, airport manager, said of the airport’s original request for the consultants to look into terminal expansion and an air traffic control tower to handle increased traffic and boardings.

Those items were included in the plan presented to Airport Authority members recently, but the plan is not binding, Blickensderfer said.

“It’s laid out in such a way that it doesn’t say we have to do these things; it’s just when we get to the point that we need them,” he said. “It’ll somewhat be deferred, not that we won’t continue to evaluate our needs.”

The plan

Tupelo’s airport is in good shape as far as meeting current needs, said Billy Langley, the senior consultant with Greiner who developed the master plan.

“There’s not a lot of earthshaking things as a result of our study,” Langley said. “Tupelo’s airport is in good shape infrastructurewise. It can accommodate anything the city is likely to need for the foreseeable future. You can build to what you have to accommodate anything that might take place.”

Still, the master plan makes several suggestions for improvements should boardings start to rise at the facility.

Among the recommendations are expanding the terminal to increase the passenger seating area, adding additional restrooms and separating the rental car counters and baggage claim areas to prevent crowding.

Langley recommended the airport expand the terminal to the north with a two-story addition that would house the facility’s administrative offices on the second floor to prevent further congestion. He also suggested the airport open up a proposed 74-space parking lot north of the terminal and reroute entrances to the terminal so passengers enter the parking lot first instead of driving in front of the terminal to reach the parking area.

The terminal expansion would cost an estimated $1.3 million with the bulk paid by federal funds and the city pitching in about $129,600, according to the plan. Expanding and improving the parking areas would cost an estimated $163,000 to reroute the entrances and expand the existing lot and another $272,000 to build the new lot with the city having to pay the entire cost.

Traffic control tower

The plan also calls for construction of an air traffic control tower. Four sites were studied for the location of the tower, which must have an unobstructed view of the entire runway. A site north of the terminal building and east of the runway was recommended with construction costs estimated at $595,000 with the city picking up the entire cost.

Both the terminal expansion and the need for an air traffic control tower were predicated on the airport’s boardings rising to between 30,000 and 45,000 by the turn of the century. The plan also predicts boardings will reach between 45,000 and 70,000 by the year 2015.

In 1995, 18,229 passengers caught flights out of Tupelo. However, that figure was down considerably from the peak of 26,842 passengers in 1993.

Since American Eagle pulled out of the city in January, boardings this year are expected to drop from last year.

Airport officials blame the declining boardings on a series of plane crashes American suffered in the last couple of years and completion of four-lane U.S. Highway 78 to Memphis, making it easier to drive there and catch flights.

Northwest, the city’s only carrier now, makes connections in Memphis.

“Right now is a difficult time when you talk about passenger growth in Tupelo,” Langley said. “The state of Mississippi keeps doing things to encourage people to drive to Memphis, like four-laning 78 and raising the speed limit.”

Blickensderfer said boardings would have to rise to between 35,000 and 37,000 annually to make the terminal and air traffic control improvements feasible.

“When we grow to that point, and we do anticipate continued growth, then we’ll think about terminal expansion,” he said.

Real needs

While many provisions in the new master plan will have to wait until boardings pick up, some need to be implemented regardless and at least two items included in the plan are already under way.

“What is going to happen with certainty is construction of a 10,000-square-foot hangar, and we’ve already purchased half of one of the fuel farms,” Blickensderfer said.

The plan recommends the construction of four new general aviation hangars, a new fuel farm and removal of the existing fuel farm, which houses storage tanks for aviation fuel and construction.

The Airport Authority recently approved construction of a new 10,000-square-foot hangar to be leased by Southernaire, one of the airport’s two fixed-base operators. It also recently approved the purchase of a 12,000-gallon fuel tank to replace an underground tank that was beginning to “float” to the surface because of water underneath.

“The complete fuel system has to be addressed before 1998,” Blickensderfer said because new federal regulations will mandate additional monitoring and safety equipment.

“The cost of making those improvements is not as cost effective as going ahead and spending it on new equipment,” he said.

Another item on the master plan that the airport will have to undertake regardless of the number of boardings is overlaying the runway. Blickensderfer said the current asphalt is about 10 years old, and the runway would need a new surface in either 1998 or 99. The estimated cost of that project would be $1.1 million and could be done entirely with federal funds and proceeds from a $3-per-passenger fee charged by the airport.

Meanwhile, Blickensderfer said the search will continue for a new carrier to help bolster boardings at the airport.

“We are pulling every string to pull to bring more improved air service here,” he said. “Some of the potential options could swell the numbers beyond the projections.”

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