“My favorite is the New Orleans to Destin flight. Shortly after takeoff, you start seeing the islands off the coast of Louisiana. Then from [the] Chandeleur Island[s] on to Ship Island, and before you know it, you’re crossing the mouth of Mobile Bay and Fort Morgan and over the Ferris wheel at the wharf in Orange Beach. You see the coastline all the way to Destin.”
Doesn’t that sound fun? Remember when flying was fun? Turns out, it still can be.
“This is the closest you’re going to get to a private airport experience without owning your own airplane,” added Southern Airways Express COO Keith Sisson to his description of the carrier’s new service from New Orleans’ historic Lakefront Airport to the beach resort of Destin.
Southern Express’ flights are made with small nine-passenger Cessna turboprop aircraft that fly at much lower altitudes than the big planes, so you can really see what you’re flying over. And every seat is a window seat.
But the differences in this flying experience and most others today start way before take-off. “What makes our experience different, is that it’s very much similar to the way flying used to be in the sixties and seventies,” said the airline’s CEO Stan Little. “We have the ability to allow you to get to the airport twenty minutes before the plane takes off.
“You park in a parking lot that’s fifty feet from the aircraft. We’ve been able to make the process both streamlined and comfortable. It’s very much the same experience you’d have if you owned the aircraft.”
Southern Express also offers non-stop service from New Orleans to Memphis and seasonally to Panama City, using the “executive terminals”—the facilities that private pilots use—at the airports it serves. “We don’t care if you have holes in your socks ‘cause you don’t have to take off your shoes,” added Sisson with a grin in his voice, noting that while all passengers are electronically prescreened at the time they buy their tickets, the boarding process is much easier and quicker than at big airports. And bags are free—even golf clubs—often loaded onto the plane by your pilot.
Need a rental car when you arrive? You can arrange to have one waiting—on the tarmac, engine running, just steps from your plane.
Though you won’t need to arrive at the airport particularly early, you should. Because next door to where your flight takes off is one of America’s most beautiful and historic airline terminals. Dedicated in 1934, the main terminal at Lakefront Airport was designed by the same architectural firm that Huey P. Long employed to construct the Louisiana State Capitol building. And like the Capitol, Lakefront Airport’s main terminal is considered an Art Deco masterpiece.
Between 1934 and 1940, several major U.S. cities constructed similarly styled airport terminal buildings, including New York’s LaGuardia, Washington National, and Houston Hobby airports; but the majority of these Art Deco terminals were demolished in the mid-1950s to make room for the demands of the jet age. Lakefront is one of a handful of restored terminals that remain in existence from this era.
The terminal was also a pit stop for history: on the evening of May 22, 1937, during her fateful attempt to fly around the world, Amelia Earhart rested in the airport’s hotel suite on the second floor, storing her famous aircraft in one of its hangars. Her personal mechanic, “Bo” McKneely, was from Patterson, Louisiana, and previously employed by the Wedell-Williams Air Service in that South Louisiana city. (For those interested in the history of flight, the state’s Wedell-Williams Aviation Museum in Patterson tells the riveting story of that company and its founders’ contributions to early aviation.)
Over the years, remodeling jobs obscured much of the building’s stunning design, including a series of travel-themed murals by artist Xavier Gonzalez and friezes by famed Louisiana sculptor Enrique R. Alferez.
Then Katrina delivered four feet of water into the building. Which, ironically, turned out to be a good thing. Eventually.
“Katrina presented an opportunity to restore [the airport] to the original grandeur,” explained Wilma Heaton, chair of New Orleans Lakefront Airport Committee. But there was an obstacle.
“I remember standing in the atrium after Katrina with the ‘recovery czar,’ Dr. Ed Blakely. He advised they intended to tear down the airport. I explained that it would not be torn down.”
Heaton went on to tell Blakely that, much to the contrary, there was a vision to restore the facility to the way it looked in the 1930s, and that he had no jurisdiction because the airport was owned by the Orleans Levee District, which was independent from New Orleans’ city administration. “He immediately got Mayor Nagin on the phone, who I presume told him I did not know what I was talking about (or so Dr. Blakely represented that to me). Well, Blakely is back in Australia. Nagin is in jail. And I am chair. But more important—the airport is restored.”
“Most of it was done with FEMA money,” explained airport director Ben Morris, of the comprehensive restoration that, despite Blakely, has indeed returned the terminal to its original glory. You may recognize Morris’ name for his long career of public service that included stints as Slidell’s mayor and police chief. He also worked in the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, a position he held when Katrina hit. One of his assignments was to deal with the airport’s damage, leading to his appointment as its director, just in time to see the terminal come to life again.
All of which is particularly pleasing for Morris, who has his own history with the terminal. “In the late 1950s, there were dances out here on a fairly regular basis,” he recalled. “We’d hear about it and always come out to chase the girls.”
Once again, folks are coming to the terminal for good times. There’s a terrific restaurant where you can brunch on crab cakes Benedict while you watch private planes take off a few yards outside the window. It’s run by Messina’s, a catering firm that also stages events in the terminal’s grand main hall.
So as it turns out, noted Heaton, “this is the beginning, not the end, for the airport.” Details. Details. Details. You can reserve your seat on Southern Airways Express at iflysouthern.com. More information about Lakefront Airport is at lakefrontairport.com. Find a menu for dining in the historic terminal at messinasterminal.com.