Storms Nearly Ground Casino Charter Flights

Until last week, Southeast Vacations sold casino junkets to passengers, and then bought their airline seats from Southeast Airlines. But on Friday, employees say the tour operator abruptly cancelled its booking service. And then it disconnected its ticket counter phone at Gulfport Biloxi International Airport.

Anthony Gayden is station manager at the airport. He learned about the shutdown Friday, while he was delivering paychecks to his co-workers. "Since Southeast Vacations folded, that means the Southeast Airlines employees' jobs are in jeopardy," he said.

Sometime between last Friday's decision to fold, and the moment a charter flight touched down in Gulfport, Gayden said Southeast Airlines decided to replace the tour operator as the casino junket supplier. "I told the employees to keep their heads up," he said. "Casino traffic is too important." Sure enough, the Southeast plane arrived from the Sanford airport near Orlando at 10:30 Tuesday morning, with more than three dozen casino patrons on board.

Airport director Bruce Frallic was somewhat in the dark about the charter airline situation. "I would like to see them continue," he said, referring to Southeast Airlines. "Of course, we'll be meeting with them as soon as we can. But we don't have any official notice of anything."

Nobody was sure why Southeast Vacations shut down. One report was that trying to recover from Hurricanes Charley and Frances made it hard for the travel company to book Florida passengers on casino junkets to Gulfport. That's what Erlene Stein heard, when she was originally told her flight had been cancelled. "They said that due to circumstances with the hurricanes and that, they had to close their doors," she said.

Whatever the reason, passengers were relieved to hear that the airline had stepped in, and saved their Gulfport vacations. Betty Mullins flies to Gulfport every two months, for a few days of gambling fun. "I drove it one time," she said. "It was too far from Orlando. It really was."

Frallic said the Southeast charters bring 36,000 Floridians through the South Mississippi airport. So if the airline doesn't book junkets, somebody else probably will. "There is a good market in Florida," said Frallic, "especially coming up in the winter months."

Coast casinos are pretty much in the dark about the Southeast situation. Many Florida casino patrons used the tour operator to make room reservations through November. Now that the tour operator is out of business, the casino won't be paid for those rooms. Grand Casino has decided it will honor the reservations at no cost to the customer.