FAA confirms 61 airport used more than VTR

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 14, 2003

[8/14/03]A Federal Aviation Administration spokesman confirmed Wednesday figures show Vicksburg Municipal Airport still much more popular with pilots than its nearest competitor, Vicksburg Tallulah Regional Airport, now 10 years old.

Usage numbers are in dispute because city officials are again confronted with what to do with Vicksburg Municipal which, under plans made 20 years ago, was to be phased out when VTR was opened.

Separately, in a letter dated Aug. 5 to executives with LeTourneau Inc., City Attorney Nancy Thomas said the city is in contact with the Warren County Port Commission to find out if that government body will take over ownership of the city municipal airport. Also, Thomas wrote that she has discussed with the mayor and aldermen amending the city’s agreement with the other government owners of VTR to delete language in that document that prevents the city from seeking funds for the municipal airport and obligating the city to close that airport.

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The two airports, one on U.S. 61 South in Vicksburg and the other in Mound, La., are at the center of renewed controversy since a 2002 Supreme Court ruling cleared the way for the new city administration to rethink or enforce a 1998 vote to close the city’s airport. The two officials voting to close are no longer in office. North Ward Alderman Gertrude Young voted against closure, but now says a study showing millions could be needed to maintain or improve the city’s airport may change her mind.

The city has set no timetable to act.

Last week, Dan McNease, chief executive officer of Rowan Companies Inc., the parent company of LeTourneau Inc., told the mayor and aldermen that 1,000 jobs could be on the line if the city closes the airport nearest its riverside construction site for offshore oil rigs.

McNease also cited flight numbers at the municipal airport that many local aviation observers say is exaggerated, but FAA spokesman Christopher White confirmed 20,725 flight operations at VKS in 2002.

That number comes from the 5010 datasheet on the airport, which is kept by the FAA and is available to the public on GCR & Associates’ Website.

White said the tally, which averages out to 57 flight operations per day or one every 25 minutes around the clock, does not represent the number of airplanes that have landed there, but indicates the number of approaches and takeoffs from the municipal airport.

“If I’m a pilot and I make three approaches, just training, that would count as six operations,” White said.

The FAA keeps records of the number of approaches and takeoffs for air traffic control purposes and does not count the number of planes that actually land at any airport. White said the number of operations does not necessarily have an economic impact on the airport if there are a lot of student pilots using that airport.

There are two flight schools locally, one at VTR and one at the Vicksburg airport, and both facilities are used to practice approaches and takeoffs, but VTR’s count for 2002, 1,980 operations, is much lower.

VTR Airport Manager Randy Woods said the regional airport’s numbers are lower because the count there, which is based on reports kept by the airport manager, is done differently.

“Ours reflects actual landings and takeoffs. Airplanes actually touching the ground,” Woods said.

White also said the 5010 datasheet reflects only information provided by the airport because airplanes landing locally at either VTR or VKS, as Vicksburg Municipal is labeled on maps, cannot be tracked by regional FAA radar. The 5010 datasheets also include other information about the airports such as the number of aircraft based at each facility.

According to the report, there are about 20 planes based at VTR and about 18 at VKS. Woods said that information is also based on reports kept by airport managers, but that FAA inspectors annually pore over the books at every airport to ensure the accuracy of the reports.

Municipal airport supporters say that the amount of business there shows that pilots prefer it over VTR while supporters of Vicksburg Tallulah Regional say closing VKS would bring more business to Mound, reducing or possibly eliminating current annual subsidizes from the four government owners.

Vicksburg officials have said they are negotiating with LeTourneau, one of the plaintiffs in the litigation that started in 1998 and continued for more than four years, to put together a deal to allow the company to lease the airport and operate it as a private facility. The hangup, the city’s letter says, is a 1997 agreement among the four owners of the VTR that stipulates the city would close the municipal airport in 1998.

That agreement also stipulates that the city will not fund or seek funds for the municipal airport. A Neel-Schaffer report funded by four of the plaintiffs showed that $630,000 worth of work is needed at the airport in the next two years, along with $3.3 million over the next 10 years.

A grant has become available through the Mississippi Development Authority that would fund the first phase of improvements at VKS, but city officials say they cannot seek that grant without violating the current VTR agreement. Mayor Laurence Leyens has said the city will only apply for the funding if LeTourneau agrees to hold the city harmless and indemnify the city from any lawsuits that could result from that action.

While city officials have floated the idea of turning the airport over to the Warren County Port Commission, Chairman Johnny Moss said the board that oversees Vicksburg port operations and the Ceres Research and Industrial Park has made no commitments. He also said that because the commission operates under the Warren County Board of Supervisors, they would be unable to apply for the grant since the county is also a party to the 1997 VTR agreement.

“We’ve got to talk about it,” Moss said. “We’ve got an interest in keeping LeTourneau open.”

Any deals with the Port Commission concerning the airport would also be subject to the approval of the Board of Supervisors. Moss said operating an airport might also require special legislation since it is outside the commission’s defined purpose.

Other than leasing or selling the 55-year-old municipal airport to the plaintiffs, including LeTourneau, city officials said they were also interested in replacing it with a new airport at Ceres. That idea, which would have required FAA funding, has not taken shape.

LeTourneau has a 61-year presence in Warren County, but shut down after building about 50 rigs. Since reopening eight years ago, the company has built three of its largest class of rigs, is now building a smaller-class rig and has contracts for more. Each sells for about $200 million.