General Aviation Provides Solid Foundation for Growth at Mississipi Airport

Nov. 6, 2014

Located more than two hours away by car from the airline hub in New Orleans, LA, Hattiesburg-Laurel Regional Airport (PIB) opened in the early 1970s to provide commercial service for residents of rural communities throughout southeastern Mississippi.

Once home to mainline airline service, the airport, which has a single 6,500-foot-long runway, now counts on its general aviation (GA), including business aviation, clientele as it also seeks additional regional jet flights through the Essential Air Services (EAS) program, which guarantees that small communities that were served by certified air carriers before deregulation maintain a minimal level of scheduled air service.

Tom Heanue became executive director of the airport in 2001 after serving as the facility’s operations manager for seven years. At that time, PIB still relied heavily on its airline customers to maintain the necessary traffic levels to receive airport improvement grant funding, but Heanue said it was already clear to him that the airport also needed to develop its GA infrastructure.

“General aviation was a sleeping giant that hadn’t really been tapped,” Heanue explained. “All of our eggs were in one basket with the airlines … [but] we had to look at how to make our airport self-sustaining, and that’s something you sure don’t get from relying on the airlines.”

PIB was home to approximately 30-based GA aircraft at that time. With the bulk of his work already focused on serving the airport’s airline tenants, Heanue approached the field’s fixed-base operator to take over existing GA hangars at the airport. “That put an onus on them to attract more aircraft,” he said. “It’s been a great relationship. We each take care of what we know.”

Today, the airport has 75-based GA aircraft. Available hangar facilities have tripled, with 16 buildings able to accommodate a broad range of aircraft types, including several jets operated by local businesses. It was also recently announced that American Eagle commercial service would begin out of PIB on Nov. 6, with flights connecting to Dallas-Forth Worth International Airport (DFW).

This emphasis on GA clients also results in those operations contributing handsomely to the airport’s bottom line. Approximately 59 percent of the airport’s annual operating revenue of $450,000 comes from GA, according to Heanue, with the bulk of that figure derived from fuel sales.

Heanue has become a passionate advocate for GA, speaking with local officials regularly about the industry’s importance to small, regional airports like PIB.

“General aviation is what runs this country,” he emphasized. “People don’t always understand that, but our local politicians are starting to come around. It helps that I’m able to show them those numbers and say, ‘This is how I’m spending less tax revenue.’

The airport is also working with a local Baptist university to develop a flight program in support of the school’s need for missionary pilots, which would provide another avenue for the expansion of GA services that Heanue believes is vital in maintaining the airport’s strong financial footing.

“EAS service is always being reduced, and we may ultimately lose commercial service,” Heanue concluded. “Any commercial service we have, so much the better… but we’re always going to be a darn fine GA airport.”