Sunday, March 31, 2013

South Lafourche Leonard Miller Jr. (KGAO), Galliano, Louisiana: Airport expanding its operations

Since being acquired by the Greater Lafourche Port Commission, the Leonard Miller Jr. Airport in Galliano has become a hub for the oil and gas servicing industry’s aerial activities and its mission is being expanded.

The airport is undergoing a series of improvements to better cater to the oil and gas industry, but it is also seeking to diversify its uses for everything from emergency response to training to recreation.

“The majority of our operations are people going offshore to work,” said Airport Manager Joe Wheeler. “We also have people using the airport for other reasons and we want to grow that also. There is too much stuff going on around here economically not to have a large airport.”

Wheeler said the activity at the airport has steadily increased in recent years and is on pace to increase again this year. The Federal Aviation Administration has projected the airport will grow more than any other airport in the state over the next 20 years, hence the new line-up of expansions to the facility.

Last year alone, the airport handled 20,000 operations or plane landings and takeoffs. That is up from 12,500 in 2011, and the airport already has had about 1,000 more operations this year than at the same point last year, Wheeler said.

“It just keeps growing and growing,” Wheeler said. “When the commission first bought the airport, there were only 500 operations out of it.”

The Greater Lafourche Port Commission has invested about $23 million in the airport since 2001 when it was acquired to assist business at Port Fourchon. Port Director Chett Chiasson said helicopter companies are now looking to do more business inland and are expecting to use the airport.

“This is an asset for economic development in the region. We have people that fly in to go to Grand Isle and go fishing in the summer. In the summer months we have fish spotters that go up to spot groups of fish.”

Wheeler also noted the airport’s availability for private training, which isn’t happening there, as well as military training.

“We are starting to get some military traffic through the area. They come in and do an approach and use it for practice,” Wheeler said.

Though, the airport is seeking diverse uses, oil and gas are still the dominant factors. Wheeler said there are three companies that have permanent facilities on the grounds. The airport is also set to complete a lease with an oilfield service company that has the potential to double the number of aircraft based at the facility from its current 34, Wheeler said.

The airport is ideal for oilfield service companies because certain helicopters require more open space than is available at landing pads nearer to the port, Wheeler said.

The airport is undergoing a laundry list of improvements that will make takeoffs and landings easier and safer while improving facilities to be more welcoming for work and leisure, Wheeler said.

A 3,500-foot taxiway was completed in September. The project cost $4.3 million, which came in under budget, Wheeler said.

“Ninety percent was funded by the FAA and 10 percent by the state. It was the third-largest single grant for general aviation in the state,” he said. “It was a great project. The FAA saw how fast we were growing, so they were able to get us that grant. It was a great effort.”

Among projects to be completed is the final component of the Instrument Landing System.

“There are three units to the system,” Wheeler said. “Right now we have two components, a localizer and the distance measuring equipment. We have the third part, the glidescope, in our possession. We just have to submit all engineering plans to the state to get it installed.”

The localizer and glidescope assist pilots in properly lining up with the runway. The inclusion of these components in the port’s offerings will not only make landing safer but also reduce the visibility required for landing, Wheeler said. .

The instillation of the glidescope is expected to take a month to construct and will be funded by the state.

Next on the list will be a $180,000 omni-directional lighting system scheduled to begin operating in late April.

When flying on an instrument flight plan in bad weather, there are specific paths an aircraft must take to land at an airport, Wheeler said. The lighting system helps these aircrafts with visibility. Right now the airport’s minimum visibility is set at a mile. Once the system is installed, it will decrease to three-quarters of a mile.

“All the equipment makes the airport more efficient,” Wheeler said. “Pilots won’t have to sit there and guess if they are going to be able to fly home in the bad weather anymore. This system will help them and increase traffic at the airport.”

The airport will also be expanding its parking space for aircraft to accommodate the growth.

“We will be working on a tarmac ramp that will be double in size for planes coming in and flying out,” Chiasson said.

Wheeler said the entire project will cost $3.2 million with 25 percent of it paid for by the state and the other 75 percent by the port commission.

Wheeler and Chiasson hope the project will begin by November, but construction depends on the status of the state money.

“It goes through the state aviation priority program, and right now it is sitting at No. 23 out of 52 projects. I am pretty sure it will get funded as long as it passes through Congress,” Wheeler said.

While construction of the ramp is underway, a new terminal building will also be built.

“We are looking to time it to the construction of the ramp so both projects can take place at the same time, allowing them to open together,” Wheeler said.

Construction of the ramp will take eight months to complete and the terminal between six and seven months.

The current 1,200-square-foot terminal will be upgraded to 3,000 square feet and cost the commission $1.5 million.

“Pilots can come in and rest up while waiting on passengers. There will be a law enforcement office for security. It is really our welcome mat for people that fly into the community,” Wheeler said.

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