Commercial flights expected to start by next summer
NEW IBERIA — Iberia Parish officials are fine-tuning a plan to add commercial round-trip air service from Acadiana Regional Airport to Houston for oil and gas workers and others by next summer.
Some $1 million has been allocated for taxiway improvements and another $750,000 will pay for building a passenger terminal at the airport, located just west of New Iberia.
“Our big plans are to get the terminal building under construction here by the end of the year,” said F. Jason Devillier, airport director.
Devillier said he and other Iberia Parish officials hope to have commercial air service to Houston — two round-trip flights per day, three days a week — by summer 2015.
The plan is a response to demand by oil and gas service businesses located near the U.S. 90 stretch from Lafayette Parish to New Iberia, including companies at the Port of Iberia, said Bill Miller, president of the six-member Iberia Parish Airport Authority.
“That economic corridor northwest of Broussard coming toward New Iberia is growing by leaps and bounds,” Miller said. “We’ve had a number of businesspeople ask us if it’d be possible to start getting some charter service going from the Acadiana Regional to Houston.”
Miller said the airport authority was crafting a questionnaire to send to businesses and residents to gauge particulars of what they are looking for, such as what time to offer flights and what days are desirable.
The demand, Iberia Parish officials say, is for low-cost air travel to Houston, the center of the world’s energy industry and the corporate home to many of the service companies in south Louisiana.
Devillier said he’s been in talks with United Airlines, which already provides Houston-New Iberia charter services at Acadiana Regional for Halliburton hands and executives traveling back and forth.
The target is to offer round-trip flights to George Bush Intercontinental Airport in north Houston for $300 to $400, well below the price next-day customers can get at Lafayette Regional Airport. The price could be low enough to entice those who usually make the grueling four-hour drive on Interstate 10 to fly instead.
“We’re looking to make it affordable to that walk-up guy,” Devillier said.
On Friday, booking the cheapest round-trip passenger jet flight the following Monday from Lafayette to Houston would cost $665, according to United’s website.
At Acadiana Regional Airport, commercial air travel won’t be fancy: Boarders with just carry-on baggage will walk through a bare bones terminal to a waiting turbo-prop plane for the hourlong flight.
Construction funds come from a 1-cent sales tax charged in a tax incremental financing district in unincorporated Iberia Parish. Proceeds from the TIF district are controlled by the Iberia Parish Council, and pay for infrastructure projects at the airport, the Port of Iberia and in other unincorporated regions of the parish.
The TIF, enacted in 2011, has generated $2.17 million to $2.54 million annually in each of the last three years, said Michelle Gonsoulin with the parish’s finance department.
Some of the parish income and money from the Federal Aviation Administration has already paid for airport improvements: sewer upgrades, modern radios in the control tower and some preliminary taxiway work.
In May, the Iberia Parish Council signed off on spending $1 million to improve the taxiway, which aircraft pilots use to get from fueling stations and hangars to the 8,002-foot runway, Devillier said.
Soon the council will allot the money to build the terminal.
“This is a pay-as-you-go project,” said Mike Tarantino, head of the Iberia Industrial Development Foundation. He said the parish and airport will try to grow into the niche business of low-cost flights.
Devillier said the flights offered would not cut into business at Lafayette Regional Airport, where brisk business has prompted Lafayette City-Parish Government to ask its residents to vote on a tax later this year to fund a new terminal.
Acadiana Regional Airport sits on an expansive 1,200-acre site, where both the Army Air Corps and the Navy ran military bases. In 1942, the Army constructed the older section, a confluence of runways that now make up the taxiway. In 1958, during the height of the Cold War, the Navy built the runway that’s still in use, and which, at 8,002 feet long and 200 feet wide, can land and launch the largest aircraft in the world. The Navy deeded the airport and land to the Iberia Parish government in 1968.
Businesses that now call the airport home include Bristow, a large helicopter company with operations worldwide, and Avex, where operators of the largest air fleets in the world — FedEx, for one — fly in their planes for paint and body work.