Allegiant Air To Soar From Gulfport Airport

South Mississippi's tourism industry got a big boost Thursday. Allegiant Air announced that it would offer non-stop flights from Gulfport to Orlando and to Las Vegas

Allegiant didn't get casino subsidies like Air Tran did to bring its planes to Gulfport. Its executives simply decided Gulfport Biloxi International Airport was the right place to grow its business.

Seeing airport director Bruce Frallic walk behind a showgirl with Mickey Mouse ears had tourism partners laughing. Why he wore those ears was one of the more significant moments in recent airport history.

"Good things always take a long time to accomplish," Frallic said at a news conference announcing new air service.

In the case of Gulfport Biloxi International Airport trying to lure Allegiant Air to its terminal, it took three years. At about the time expansion work started around the terminal, Allegiant Air appeared on the airport's radar screens.

"Allegiant didn't let us alone. And we didn't let Allegiant alone," Frallic remembered.

Consequently, on June first, Allegiant Air will have a ticket counter next to Gulfport's five other airlines.

"We see it as a great opportunity for our company," Allegiant Air marketing director Eric Woodson said.

His first passengers bring their bags to the coast a month before Hard Rock Biloxi opens. Shannon Oberlies represented Hard Rock at the news conference.

"It will definitely help us," she admitted. "But again, it's all about the whole gulf coast and trying to get people back here and the community up and running and getting the word out that we're here."

Allegiant used a showgirl to help spread the word. Why? Because twice a week, it will fly non-stop from Gulfport to Las Vegas. Three times a week, 150 seat jets fly down to Orlando. That explains the Mickey Mouse ears.

"I'm anxious to see how the local community responds," said Woodson.

Years ago, the Gulfport Biloxi airport set up ticket counters for carriers that offered limited schedules. But bookings on airlines like Reno Air and Canada 3000 never took off the way airport leaders expected. That was scheduled charter service. Airport executive Jim Pitts says Allegiant offers flights anybody can book.

"If these flights do well in the beginning in say the first month or so, we'll get additional flights to Las Vegas and to Orlando," he said.

Airport expansion work is supposed to be done about a month after Allegiant Air arrives. According to airport statistics, 130,248 passengers have used Gulfport Biloxi International Airport in 2007. That's an 18 percent increase from where passenger counts were a year ago.