Subcommittee Discusses Upgrading Mississippi's Airports

The United States Senate subcommittee on aviation met in downtown Gulfport Tuesday. The group heard testimony about how federal grant programs have helped fund improvements at small airports throughout Mississippi.

Millions of your tax dollars are helping improve airports throughout Mississippi. And those airport upgrades are providing an economic boost to many local communities.

That issue got attention before a rare Senate subcommittee meeting in Gulfport.

"We've made good progress, particularly in Mississippi, with our smaller airports and our rural airports," said Senator Trent Lott, as he opened the meeting Tuesday morning.

The meeting of the aviation subcommittee featured your typical C-SPAN-looking panel of witnesses and crowded committee room. But this wasn't the Senate office building, but rather the 15th floor of the Hancock Bank building in downtown Gulfport.

"We needed more seats. We needed jet service. And we needed to market our services," said Tom Williams, the director of the Meridian Regional Airport.

The hearing was partly aimed at seeing how the federal government can better meet the needs of smaller airports.

"I hope that coming out of this, we will develop some new ideas, some specific things that we want to plan on," said Senator Lott.

Gulfport-Biloxi International airport is an ongoing success story of passenger growth and airport expansion. The airport used several million in federal dollars to help leverage a $50 million dollar improvement project.

"When we complete it, we're going to be able to grow from where we are, which is about 900 thousand passengers, to two point four million passengers, without really making any major additions to the terminal," said airport director, Bruce Frallic.

Gulfport-Biloxi isn't the only Mississippi airport getting a boost from federal funding. Many rural airports are also adding improvements.

"We're getting towers at these airports, we're lengthening runways. Even smaller, really small airports like Waynesboro we've extended the runway. So, we have been benefiting from the federal programs and are going to continue to do that," said Senator Lott.

Those who help allocate those federal funds will take suggestions from the meeting in South Mississippi back to Washington.

A federal initiative called the "Small Community Air Service Program" was one focus of the hearing. Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport has applied for a one million dollar grant from that program.