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Acadiana Lifestyle

Big Jets Come To ARA

03/08/2013 07:37AM ● Published by Robert Frey

Acadiana Regional Airport Is 2nd Busiest In State

By Barbara Gautreaux

Friday afternoon under a blue sky has Acadiana Regional Airport buzzing with activity. The aircraft on the tarmac includes planes visiting ARA’s tenants, U.S. military and Lear jets refueling, and recreational pilots enjoying the day. These visitors to ARA contribute to a surprising announcement on the scope of business taking place at this local airport that does not feature a commercial terminal.

ARA is the second busiest airport in the state, based upon the number of take-offs and landings. The airport has features that make it desirable for certain customers, and its popularity is on the rise.

Economic Impact Study Numbers

The figures coming out of an economic impact study funded by the Aircraft Division of the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development have verified that Iberia Parish is home to the second busiest airport in the state.

Acadiana Regional Airport, 1404 Hangar Drive, New Iberia, received the information last October, and the full report will be released by the state’s New Orleans consulting firm by the end of 2013.

ARA Director Jason Devillier says traditionally airports are determined to be busy by the number of passengers going through their terminals. “At the seven established air passenger airports in the state, they keep track of passengers. They don’t keep track of airplanes landing. We keep track of that information internally.”

Acadiana Regional’s internal record keeping logged this information, but it was never compared to the other 69 airports in the state. With this study, initiated by the state, the economic impact of the top 40 airports will be analyzed to show what the indirect impact is for areas that have an airport.

The airport budget each year shows their revenues and expenses, $1.4 million and $1.2 million, but it doesn’t take into account how the money generated at the airport ripples out into the community.

“When you look at the number of airplanes that we handle, we are the second busiest airport in the state,” says Devillier. “We were the second busiest for nine years. The years following Hurricane Katrina, from 2006 to 2010, we were—by count—the busiest in the state. We were busier than New Orleans.”

Devillier is in charge of the two airports in Iberia Parish, ARA and LeMaire Memorial Airport in Jeanerette, but the study only used figures from ARA.

ARA is under FAA regulation, while LeMaire is regulated by the State of Louisiana’s DOTD Airport Division. Devillier told the Iberia Parish Airport Authority Board of Directors, “The airplanes are coming here and we are taking the next step in getting the aviation industry to follow them here.” These steps include building new passenger terminal buildings, gateways, aprons, hangars, taxiways, a new air traffic control tower and expansions to the runway making it accessible to the largest airplanes flying today, with safety runway off areas not found at any other airport in Louisiana.

Traffic Is High

If you compare the numbers or look at the graphs, ARA stands out as a very busy airport. The numbers are neck-and-neck to New Orleans, not considering the downtown heliport, and compared to Lake Charles’ two airports, ARA still has more take-offs and landings.

One reason for ARA numbers is the U.S. military planes that land there almost on a daily basis. “The military cannot land at a civilian airport that has a runway of less than 8,000 feet,” says Devillier. “They would have to get a waiver from the department of defense.”

A portion of ARA revenue comes from refueling these military planes. “Pelican Aviation will sell them x amount of gas and we get four percent of what they sell,” says Devillier. As a Parish owned-entity, all financials on the airport are public record.

According to Devillier, who worked for the Lafayette Airport Commission for 10 years, the Lafayette Airport’s runway is 7,600 feet long. “They are trying to extend their runway and they are spending money to try to capture that.”

ARA is on 2,325 acres with an 8,002–foot concrete runway, a 5,000-foot lighted water runway (the only one in the continuous 48 states), and features a direct rail link with an intermodal rail-to-truck off loading facility. Its industrial park houses more than 50 companies with 1,750 employees on site.

Having enough land around an airport is crucial, both for safety and commerce. Devillier served on a Louis Armstrong International Airport committee focused on land acquisition around the Kenner airport, to purchase 40 million acres and change that area from homes and schools to industrial use. “We are in a good situation in that we are surrounded by agricultural and industrial operations. Farmers and industrial businesses don’t care about how much noise is generated.” A nearby waste pickup station is no longer an issue. “The way Iberia Parish has it zoned works for us.”

The airport leases land to businesses and farmers, but 1500 acres are not developed. The potential at ARA is starting to be realized with an airport access road anticipated from Highway 675 exit at U.S. 90 (the Jefferson Island Road). Recreational airport use would be at Highway 88. “This is still in the engineering phase so it is tentative, but this would connect to our future industrial park,” says Devillier.

A 20-year Master Plan is being developed, funded by the FAA and the DOTD, which will be finished in September. “This would be a gateway to Acadiana Regional Airport,” he says. “Someday soon it may be called by a different name, Acadiana International Airport.”

Controllers

Air Traffic Manager Wendy Carr Eldridge is in charge of the seven air traffic controllers at ARA. Since 1993 the number of tower personnel under her supervision has grown from four to its current amount. The tower is open from 6 a.m.-9 p.m., everyday. All tower employees are certified, and either ex-military or ex-FAA. They must pass a yearly flight physical, and because ARA was a former Navy base, its tower features Navy steps and ladders.

“It is not a walk-off-the-street kind of job, but if I have an opening I look local first. Especially the ones just getting out of the military,” she says. Is a controller’s job as hectic as it is often reported? Says Eldridge, “It is either calm or swamped with almost no in-between. Most controllers can control better when it is busy because the mind is clicking and you are aware of everything. We like it when it is busy.”

English is the language of the skies and Eldridge says that controllers train their ears and listen close as some pilots have accents even if English is their first language. “We have our A team up there in the tower,” she says.

A new Air Traffic Control Tower is included in Acadiana Regional’s massive Master Plan, as is extending the current runway to 10,000 feet. This will make the airport accessible to the largest airplanes flying today, with safety runway off areas not found at any other airport in Louisiana.

Construction, TIFs, Passengers

Things are changing “big time” at both ARA and LMA. The Jeanerette airport is currently leasing 13 brand-new 40x42 box-like hangers recently built at Iberia Parish expense. “That type of construction has not occurred for more than 20 years,” says Devillier. A State DOTD grant repaired the LMA asphalt runway four years ago. Three years ago another grant was used for runway lights, navigational lights and for an emergency generator at the smaller airport.

ARA has four private hangars that were built in the last four years, which eliminated a 15-year break in such construction. The runways at ARA are currently receiving updated signage per FAA regulations. Devillier is especially proud of the most recent FAA inspection at ARA, a four-day certification requirement that is done every year, where inspectors found no discrepancies. “That was a very big major accomplishment.”

Progress Point Business Park, a project of the Iberia Economic Development Authority, is a 50-acre, mixed-use commercial park located near ARA, at the
intersection of Jefferson Island Road and Highway 90.

Part of the support for the airport’s future is being realized through Tax Increment Financing, or TIF districts implemented by the Iberia Parish Council. “TIF districts are funding $1 million worth of projects that would otherwise not be realized,” says Devillier. “These projects are a priority to Iberia Parish.”

According to a representative of the Iberia Parish Airport Authority, “We are dedicated to positioning ARA as the airport of choice for scheduled commercial airlines, freight companies and heavy aircraft support services to call home, and in supporting and expanding our world-leading helicopter companies such as Bristow and Rotorcraft Leasing that support our offshore oil and gas industry.”

As far as passenger service, Devillier says that is happening right now with an arrangement between United Airlines and work crews from Halliburton. Every other Sunday at ARA, Halliburton buses in workers headed for Hattiesburg, Miss., and Midland, Texas. About 180 oilfield support workers, engineers and geologists are screened by TSA and loaded onto planes. “TSA and Homeland Security flies in with the aircraft, the passengers are screened and put right on the airplane,” says Devillier. “They used to fly out of Lafayette, but it takes time and the airline doesn’t have a lot of employees working on Sunday.”

ARA hires a local company to load baggage, which is paid for by
Halliburton. The airline flies in, is refueled, about 42 passengers are screened and loaded, all in about 22 minutes. “It is good for the airline, Halliburton and the passengers and it is not costing us any money,” says Devillier. “Plus I get to demonstrate to United that it is very inexpensive to operate out of ARA.”

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