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Air Gumbo could be airborne by end of year

Planes painted to look like a giant bowl of gumbo — crawfish included — could be taking to the south Louisiana skies by the end of year.

Local businessman Ralston Champagnie announced his plans Wednesday to launch Air Gumbo, a medium-size airline with hub operations in New Orleans and its headquarters in Lafayette.

Air Gumbo's fleet would consist of seven Boeing 737s. The planes would be painted so the forward part of the aircraft is a pale blue and the back looks like a bowl of gumbo, including a giant red crawfish, onions, sausage and red peppers.

The airline would be a low-fare, low-cost and no-frills service that would first serve Louisiana cities and Houston, then branch out to the Caribbean, Mexico and Central America, Champagnie said.

"We are waiting on the war now and looking for funding," said Champagnie, a native of Jamaica who has lived in Lafayette for 20 years. "I feel that we will be up and running by the end of the year."

The first phase will call for about 300 employees, with 100 of them located in Lafayette, he said. The Lafayette employees would be administrative personnel while the remaining jobs in New Orleans would go to pilots, terminal workers and ground crews.

"As the airline grows, so will the number of people in Lafayette and New Orleans," he said.

The eventual plans call for up to 1,000 employees by the second year of operation, again with the most workers in New Orleans.

The 47-year-old businessman said getting the necessary Federal Aviation Administration approval and negotiations with the airports involved for landing rights should take about nine months. Champagnie said he hopes to have those issues completed before the end of the year.

The key to his plans is funding, Champagnie said. Several investors are interested, but he added that his capital raising campaign is just beginning.

Champagnie said the first part of Air Gumbo's plan is to develop links to Louisiana cities including Lafayette and then to Houston as its only out of state destination for now. The second phase, which he said could be completed as early as the summer of 2004, would be to develop destinations in the Caribbean, Mexico and Central America.

"We do not want to be too aggressive in our first and second phases," Champagnie said. "We want to establish ourselves and Air Gumbo first."

A presentation has already been made to the state Department of Economic Development and one is planned for the state's Office of Tourism, he said.

Air Gumbo has received resolutions of support from the Lafayette Airport Commission, the Calcasieu Airport Authority and the New Orleans Aviation Board.

Champagnie said he would make a second presentation to the New Orleans Aviation Board since it has new members named by New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin.

Initial planning for the airline began in 1998, he said.

The Associated Press & Local Wire


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