By STEVEN NALLEY
Debbie Olexa was just passing through Golden Triangle Regional Airport, headed home to North Pole, Alaska, after visiting her parents in the area.
“I haven’t been home in three years,” Olexa said. “I came down here to get a head start on thawing out.”
She said she has been flying in and out of GTRA for years, but she did not know how long the airport had been in operation. So she said she was surprised to find GTRA staff cutting a triangular, golden cake emblazoned with a giant “40,” offering slices and GTRA merchandise to every customer at the terminal.
“I can’t believe it’s been 40 years,” Olexa said.
Golden Triangle Regional Airport celebrated its 40th anniversary Friday, inviting not only new and old staff, but also customers to join the party.
It was a brief celebration, lasting about half an hour before a monthly meeting of the GTRA Board of Directors, but GTRA Marketing Director Kathy Kenne said the event was a success. She said the goal was not only to recognize those who have made GTRA a success over the years, but also to show appreciation to passengers who use their services. The cross-section of guests present was diverse, she said.
“We wanted to surprise the people who were here,” Kenne said. “We had people come in for the LSU game that were leaving; we had parents of Columbus Air Force Base pilots coming in from New York.”
In addition to slices of the cake, free merchandise available to guests included T-shirts, sun visors and coffee mugs. Mike Hainsey, GTRA executive director, said both the merchandise and the cake disappeared quickly.
Hainsey said GTRA owed its continued success to partnerships with CAFB, local industries its biggest customer — Mississippi State University.
“Airports are basically a mirror of the local economy,” Hainsey said. “All the people pulling together for our local success, that’s the reason we’ve had success now.”
One of the honorees present at the celebration was Stuart Vance, who represented Starkville on the GTRA Board of Directors for 42 years. Vance said the airport was actually dedicated on Sept. 1, 1971, and had been in operation for some time before that, with a board of directors working to get the airport off the ground as early as June 1965.
“The intent of building the airport was to position the Golden Triangle for the coming era of jet service,” Vance said. “Through the efforts of some of our community leaders, we were able to get Southern Airways to bring their jets in as they were delivered. It wasn’t easy, but through the years we were able to stay financially sound and generate the traffic needed for service.”
On Nov. 6, Vance will release a book on GTRA’s history, “Aviation in the Golden Triangle,” which features some pictures of the airport’s development which have never been published before.
Vance said outside support was critical in the airport’s early years as well, especially federal support from U.S. Sens. John C. Stennis and James Eastland. In the years since, he said, it has helped GTRA immensely to have four revenue generators all its own: parking fees, airport landing fees, car rentals and passenger fees for security checks.
“The airport has stayed financially sound through good managers and unique ways of financing,” Vance said. “The airport became self-sustaining in the 1990s and today remains one of few airports that is self-sustaining.”