After the storm

Posted: 6 February 2007 | Sean C. Hunter, Interim Director of Aviation, Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport | No comments yet

Recovery from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina continues apace in New Orleans and nowhere more so than at the city’s airport, where commercial air service resumed only two weeks after the storm. Tourists are returning and Sean C. Hunter forecasts a continuing rise in passenger figures.

Recovery from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina continues apace in New Orleans and nowhere more so than at the city’s airport, where commercial air service resumed only two weeks after the storm. Tourists are returning and Sean C. Hunter forecasts a continuing rise in passenger figures.

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall in the Gulf South, wreaking havoc and establishing itself as the worst natural disaster in U.S. history. Surviving the initial fallout from the storm, the City of New Orleans fell victim to flooding due to the collapse of levees designed to retain the surrounding waters from lakes and canals. Until the resumption of commercial air service on September 13, 2005, Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport was at the centre of the rescue and recovery effort for the survivors in the Orleans and Jefferson Parishes, and marked a place for itself in aviation history serving in a number of roles.

For over two weeks, Armstrong International Airport was the site of a storm shelter, hospital, maternity ward, triage centre, hospice, morgue, military encampment, air evacuation site, relief drop zone, pet shelter, police station, fire house, ambulance dispatch centre, command centre for area rescue and relief, evacuee drop zone, relief barracks & provisions for thousands. It also served as a General Aviation airport, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) debris staging site, and a FEMA trailer village for over half of the airport employees. The airport staff and various government agencies were responsible for evacuating over 30,000 hurricane evacuees to safety at centres located throughout the United States.

The airport became the defacto rescue and recovery site when the U.S. Coast Guard began dropping off stranded citizens. For the first 24 hours following landfall, the airport fire department attended to victims assisted by a team of physicians and nurses who were attending a medical convention in the city and were stranded at the airport when their flights were cancelled. They were replaced by FEMA medical teams (DMAT) the following day. Order at the airport was maintained by a handful of local sheriff deputies who were later assisted by military police. Various airlines flew in water and supplies and transported their stranded passengers to their destinations and soon after the arrival of the U.S. military, the massive airlift began.

During this period of time, the airport staff and management served as ticket agents, supply coordinators and whatever position was needed for the moment. During the transition period from commercial airport to the various roles previously mentioned, the NOAB management of Armstrong International Airport maintained control of the airport, while assisting the various government agencies by providing housing, equipment and whatever logistics that were needed at the airport.

The return to commercial air service just two weeks after the storm was one of the first signs of some return to “normal” business in the affected region. This was welcomed with much media attention, as well as unanticipated passenger demand, which filled every plane. Rebounding from the storm at a faster pace than predicted, Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport as of January 2007 has 103 daily flights serving 32 cities (64% of the number of Pre-Katrina daily departures and 77% the number of Pre-Katrina destinations; 12,641 seats or 61% of our Pre-Katrina level of seats per day). Airlines operating out of Armstrong International Airport include: Air Tran Airways, American Airlines, Continental Airlines, Delta Air Lines, JetBlue, Northwest Airlines, Southwest Airlines, and U.S. Airways. The majority of the shops and eateries have re-opened at the airport and road transportation to the area from the airport is readily available with shuttles, taxis and rental cars.

As bright as the picture may sound, there is still unmet demand for additional air service. Industry dynamics, including high load factors and scarce resources nationwide, have complicated efforts to restore adequate levels of air service. The New Orleans Aviation Board has taken pro-active measures to encourage the return. The first decision was to hold the cost per enplaned passenger down to pre-Katrina levels. This was accomplished by severe cost cutting measures and borrowing funds to supplement operating costs. In addition, for calendar year 2007 additional incentives are offered for airlines who return to at least 85 per cent of their pre-Katrina level of service and for adding service to new destinations. On-going meetings with airlines, along with help from local tourism and business officials, have improved the dialogue and information flow to airlines to assist them in accurately gauging growing passenger demand.

The day prior to the arrival of Hurricane Katrina, the East-West Runway 10-28 Rehabilitation was completed providing $64 million dollars in rehab monies that benefited the community directly and indirectly. This runway, completed months ahead of schedule, served an important role in the evacuation of the victims of the storm. As Armstrong International Airport looks to tomorrow, details of an Airport Strategic Master Plan for the current airport site are under review, and if implemented, could provide another catalyst to the on-going recovery of the area.

An on-going campaign entitled “Music to Your Eyes” to “extra” clean, maintain and repair the airport began before the holidays. It is designed to brighten the airport environment and give the traveler a more pleasant experience at Armstrong International Airport. To name just a few of the hundreds of assigned tasks, the campaign consists of the addition of lighting to brighten up passenger pick-up points, the re-routing of rental car shuttles through a newly constructed exit to diminish smog outside the baggage claim area, patching and painting throughout the facility, the establishment of marked smoking areas outside of the building, deep cleaning of carpet, installation of directional signage, repair of seating, making trash receptacles uniform and replacement and repair of ceiling tiles. The total campaign is expected to be over $8 million dollars.

Much has been written and shown about the demise of the City of New Orleans and the Greater New Orleans Metro area following the impact of Hurricane Katrina. However, many do not know that for the leisure traveller or conventioneer, its back to business as usual, i.e., “good times and good food for all”.

New Orleans has always been a desirable destination for many to conduct business and have fun, and international industry experts think the “Big Easy” still is. They have ranked the city as a top travel destination for 2007.

“These designations reflect a tremendous vote of confidence for New Orleans from two of the travel industry’s most well-respected and well-received groups,” said a New Orleans Tourism official of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Tim Zagat, chief executive of nationally recognised Zagat Survey LLC, recently released the results of his first survey of the city since Hurricane Katrina. He said, “There are fewer restaurants, hotels and tourist attractions, but there is still much to love about New Orleans. Because tourism is so important to the New Orleans economy, the best way the nation can contribute to the city’s recovery is to visit.”

Fortunately, the areas most visited by tourists were the areas least affected by the storm. The vast majority of downtown hotel properties are now reopened, with 30,000 of 38,000 hotel rooms available in metropolitan New Orleans. According to the Louisiana Restaurant Association, there are approximately 700 restaurants open in Orleans Parish alone, including the restaurants popular with visitors in the French Quarter, Downtown, Warehouse Arts District, Garden District and Uptown New Orleans.

According to the New Orleans Tourism official, New Orleans has successfully welcomed over 300 meetings since June 2006, including city-wide conventions, sporting events and the recent Sugar Bowl in January.

The airport and the city are on the road to recovery. How long that road will be, no one knows. While there have been some disappointments, there has also been hope. As the recovery continues and Mardi Gras approaches, New Orleans continues its tradition of “Letting the Good Times Roll.” As for Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, we look towards the future and see blue skies ahead.

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