by Chris Price
Airports are the Natural State’s gateways to the world
In today’s business environment, transactions happen at the speed of light. Although automation has made it easier to converse and conduct commerce online, sometimes face-to-face interaction is what’s needed to seal the deal.
For the past century, air travel has made the world smaller by connecting once distant places and making travel time between them significantly shorter.
Arkansas’ economy benefits greatly from aviation. From large commercial airports with jet operations to grass strips suitable for crop dusters, the Natural State’s skies are filled with fliers making an impact on the economy.
Airports play a key part in local communities’ economic development, making it easier to do business with and from Arkansas. They are more than just launching and landing points, however. Work at these airports, often worth millions of dollars, is jobbed out to local companies. As communities grow and add attractions and amenities, airports bring people and their money to their towns.
According to an April 2019 report by the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, “Economic Impact of Arkansas Airports,” the state’s public and military airports support more than 42,400 jobs, directly and indirectly; generate $1.5 billion in payroll and produce $3.5 billion in economic activity.
There are more than 90 airports in Arkansas that perform a vital role as the front door of their local communities, however, it is those that offer commercial passenger traffic that have the greatest impact. As the economy has rebounded from the Great Recession, the state’s 10 biggest airports are enjoying a period of sustained success and are looking at terminal expansions and renovations, as well as adding additional destinations and carriers to keep Arkansas’ business climate soaring.
Clinton National Airport
With record passenger numbers and customer satisfaction survey scores in the high 90s, the team at Bill & Hillary Clinton National Airport is enjoying the fruits of its labors as it works through the second of a three-phase remodel that is transforming the airport’s layout, access roads, interior and exterior appearance. In the first phase, the airport spent $67 million to renovate its ticketing and departure area. In the concourse, $25 million has been spent to add several vendors, including restaurants Chick-Fil-A and Chili’s Grill & Bar, plus provide some of the fastest Wi-Fi speeds of any airport in the world and become the only airport in the nation to give every seat in the terminal an electrical outlet. It is currently updating its aesthetics to match the new interior and adding exterior windows to bring in more natural light. The third phase, with an estimated $220 million cost, will include building a new arrivals’ wing to the west concourse entryway, which will mirror the departure wing and alter the shape of the first-floor layout to a linear design. A new access road extension will be added, and the short-term parking lot will be relocated from the west side of the terminal to the south side.
With non-stop flights to 15 cities, including the addition of new destinations Denver, Orlando, and Destin, Fla., the airport saw more than 2.14 million passengers in 2018.
“We’ve experienced 13 months of consecutive passenger growth,” executive director of Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport Ron Mathieu told AMP days before he announced he was resigning his position to take over the airport in Birmingham, Ala. “We’re in a good position financially – debt free.”
The airport has six carriers, including Allegiant, American Airlines, Delta, Southwest, United and Frontier. Mathieu says he is happy with the balance of carriers and destinations currently offered. Little Rock’s airport is the primary airport for 62 out of Arkansas’ 75 counties, and the passenger make up is about 60 percent leisure travelers compared to 40 percent business travelers.
“We’re always talking to carriers about the possibility of coming out here, but you really have to be careful with that because if they come here, invest their resources and equipment, and they’re not successful, that doesn’t speak well for the community,” Mathieu says. “And that gets out (among other airlines), it’s hard for (one) to want to take a risk and come out.”
Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport
Northwest Arkansas is renowned for the growth it has experienced over the last few decades, and its regional airport – the one with the unique three-letter code, XNA, which stands for “the most eXciting New Airport in the country” – has been expanding since the $107 million facility opened for commercial passenger business on November 1, 1998. Today the airport has five carriers – Allegiant, American, Delta, Frontier and United – that offer almost 40 flights a day to 18 destinations, including non-stop service to New York, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Miami and Chicago, according to XNA CEO Aaron Burkes.
Drawing passengers from Bentonville, Fayetteville, Rogers, Siloam Springs, Springdale, Benton and Washington counties and beyond, XNA had a record year for traffic in 2018 with 1,574,610 total passengers, 66 percent of whom were business travelers and 12 percent international.
That success, coupled with sustained demand, has led to the addition of two more destinations. In February, Allegiant Airlines announced seasonal non-stop flights to Nashville, which will operate twice weekly beginning June 6. In April, low-fare carrier Frontier Airlines said it would begin non-stop service to Denver International Airport on an Airbus A320 Family on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays starting June 27. American Airlines has recently announced new, non-stop daily service to Philadelphia that begins on September 4 and to Miami beginning December 18.
To improve customer service, the airport has partnered with AT&T to provide new Wi-Fi service throughout the terminal.
“XNA has a very exciting future,” Burkes says. “The airport is experiencing strong growth, and we are beginning to capture more leisure travelers through lower airfares and more direct destinations. With over 8 percent enplanement growth last year and over 12 percent enplanement growth so far this year, we are expanding and updating our facilities to accommodate the growth.
“We expect that the leisure travelers’ share will continue to increase over the coming years, because lower fares encourage more people to choose to fly instead of drive or fly through XNA instead of through another airport.”
Fort Smith Regional Airport
The Fort Smith Regional Airport serves Arkansas’ second largest city. American and Delta provide daily regional jet service to Atlanta and Dallas international airports, with connections worldwide.
“We’re a smaller airport and very fortunate to have that kind of service out of here,” Airport Director Michael Griffin says.
Although the airport dates back to the mid-1930s, the $12.8 million terminal complex, which reflects Fort Smith’s traditional architectural heritage, opened for airline service in September 2002. The 52,200-square-foot facility houses the airlines, rental car companies and a cafe, as well as offices for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA); and airport administration.
Griffin says the airport overwhelmingly serves business travelers.
“Probably 80 percent of our passenger base is business travelers – people coming and going for business – from Fort Smith and the surrounding four-county area around Fort Smith and even into eastern Oklahoma,” he says.
Texarkana Regional Airport
Officials at Texarkana Regional Airport are elated about the new $37 million, 38,000-square-foot, two-story structure passenger terminal coming online within the next six years. In April, the airport’s authority board approved a measure to secure a $3 million line of credit to help finance the project.
Steve Anderson, the airport’s director of maintenance, says construction should begin this fall and will take a minimum of four years to build.
“The terminal is pretty old,” he says. “We need upgrades, and this will do it.
“We’ve received federal grants for the construction. As the city grows and the region grows, the new terminal will help us better serve the community with increased passenger loads.”
Airport Director Mark Mellinger says construction could begin as early as 2020, with the first two years dedicated to building the terminal structure, the next two completing the interior, and the fifth adding jet bridges, the enclosed walkways that lead passengers from the terminal gate to the airplane.
Airport officials expect architects to complete design work in August, at which time the board will present financial estimates for the project to the Federal Aviation Administration for construction grant funding.
The terminal upgrade comes on the heels of the airport replacing its main runway in 2015.
Located in Miller County on the Arkansas side of Texarkana, which straddles the Arkansas-Texas border, Texarkana Regional, also known as Webb Field, is jointly owned by both states. It serves passengers from Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma. Its lone carrier, American Eagle, has three daily flights to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.
A 2006 economic impact study found the airport is responsible for 420 jobs with a $9.85 million payroll and a total economic impact of $32.5 million on the city.
Jonesboro Municipal Airport
Jonesboro is seeing tremendous growth, and its airport is benefitting as a result. While it only has one carrier, Air Choice One, and one destination, St. Louis, the airport has nearly 120 private planes.
“We’re starting to see a lot of business jets come in,” says Airport Manager George Jackson. “We’re seeking long-term funding for a runway strengthening.”
On average, the airport has about 55 general aviation takeoffs and landings daily, about 20,000 a year, not counting Air Choice One’s commercial operations.
Jackson says the airport is not looking to add additional carriers, but it is open to the possibility of additional landing sports.
“St. Louis has been a great destination. It’s a hub where you’ve got access to the world from there,” he says. “It’s a one-hour flight, $35 there and $35 back,” he says. “It’s $70 round-trip, and we offer free parking. It’s much more economical than driving to Memphis or Little Rock, likely paying more for your ticket at those airports and paying for parking – which may be about $70 – on top of that.”
Business travelers make up approximately 35-40 percent of passengers at Jonesboro Municipal.
Jackson says he expects the airport to embark on expansion, remodeling and refurbishing several aspects of the airport and runway to keep up with the Jonesboro area’s expansion.
“Looking at our numbers, the growth, the fuel sales are increasing monthly and all that combined, the future’s looking pretty bright,” Jackson says. “Jonesboro is growing. The community in northeast Arkansas is growing so fast.”
South Arkansas Regional Airport
Johnathan Estes, airport manager of the South Arkansas Regional Airport, is excited about several changes going on at the field and terminal at El Dorado. Last month, the airport’s single carrier, Southern Airways Express, added Memphis as a destination. With six round trips a week, it is creating more opportunities for local flyers to go almost anywhere on the globe.
“With this new connection, you can go from El Dorado to Dallas or Memphis and then from Memphis to Atlanta or Nashville,” Estes says. Once you hit Dallas and Atlanta you’re hitting the two largest hubs in the United States, and you can go anywhere in the country or around the world from those two hubs.”
On the ground, the airport is currently installing new signage, but a pair of projects could change the terminal and its surrounding grounds.
Estes says the airport is working toward a $2.1 million remodeling of the World War II era poured-concrete terminal which opened in 1948 and has set up a 501(c)3 nonprofit to raise funds for the renovation.
“There’s not too many terminals like this one, and we’re trying to preserve it rather than tear it down,” he says. “We’ve recently had it added to the National Register of Historic Places, but it does need remodeling through the whole structure, not just things like HVAC system, but the aesthetics. It needs some freshening up and to look nice again. It’s an old terminal and takes a bit to remodel it.”
In addition to the terminal renovation, Estes says the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission is considering adding a new education center near the airport’s entrance. It is expected to feature hiking trails, 3D and hay bale archery ranges and fishing ponds.
“That’s still being worked out, because you don’t want to attract wildlife to an airport, especially birds,” he says. “That might cause our pilots some heartburn.”
Boone County Regional Airport
The Boone County Regional Airport in Harrison has one carrier, Southern Airways Express, with non-stop flights to Dallas and Memphis and a one-stop flight to Nashville via Memphis.
“They fly a nine-passenger Cessna Caravan,” says Airport Manager Judy McCutcheon. “With one stop in Dallas or Memphis, people in our area can connect to anywhere in the world.”
Boone County’s airport is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Essential Air Service program which allows the airport 18 round-trip flights per week, as such, McCutcheon says it does not have any plans to add new carriers or destinations.
“The future looks good for our airport as we now have the most reliable air carrier we have ever had,” she says. “If we had more available seats, we could easily fill them as flying into DFW is very attractive for our leisure and business travelers.”
The airport serves a growing need for local passengers, of which 60 percent are recreational flyers compared to 40 percent business travelers, she says.
“We recently expanded our terminal parking lot to accommodate our flying public and the rental car agencies on the field,” McCutcheon says. “We plan on a terminal remodel in the next five years.”
Hot Springs Memorial Field Airport
While some say the golden era of Hot Springs aviation was in the early-to-mid-20th century, when flights to Chicago, New Orleans, Havana, Cuba and Kingston, Jamaica could be had, the recent approval of casino gaming in the city has Memorial Field Airport officials hopeful for an increase in traffic.
The airport is currently serviced by Southern Airways Express, which offers service to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, and is financially buoyed by corporate and privately-owned aircraft. Memorial Field offers seven corporate-style hangars, 51 smaller hangars, 11 small-business hangars and the 1930s-military hangar original to the airport.
Airport Director Glen Barentine says passenger counts were abysmal before Southern Airways took over as its carrier. Since then, counts have been steadily increasing.
The airport is noticeably busier during Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort’s racing season, and a $100 million expansion that will add a larger gaming area, high-rise hotel and multi-purpose event center will increase traffic through the terminal.
“Oaklawn has always been a big attraction, and when you add what they’re expanding to become, this is going to add to it,” he says. “It’s absolutely going to increase our traffic.”
Barentine says the airport is currently updating some design elements at the field in order to become compliant with new FAA standards and looking to find ways to accommodate more aircraft by building more hangers. Within the next five years, he expects the airport to look at terminal improvements and modernization.
“It’s all in the planning phases right now, down the road kind of plans.”
North Little Rock Municipal Airport
The North Little Rock Airport is located in the heart of Arkansas’ industrial, commercial and financial centers. While it doesn’t serve commercial airlines, airport director Clay Rogers says the facility is experiencing so much demand of its general aviation services from corporate and business fliers that it is building new tarmac aprons to house more private planes.
“We’ve got quite a bit going on, actually,” Rogers says. “We’re getting a lot of calls for hangar space and to base their aircraft here. A lot of people are interested in moving their planes to North Little Rock.”
Rogers says the airport recently built a new apron that will accommodate six new hangars and has plans to build a large new apron that will accommodate up to six new long, T-hangars. The airport is also renovating and expanding its fixed-based operations building and adding a new restaurant.
“We’re in the planning stages on that and need to get approval from the city council on funding, but we believe we can do that, and by the end of this year we will begin that project.”
The airport is home to about 180 corporate and private aircraft and is used extensively by the business community. It has two fixed based operators, 24 privately owned T-hangars and corporate hangars, and 180 plus tie downs. Its four runways accommodate 56,000 takeoffs and landings a year.
Flight instruction, airplane rentals, scenic flights, aircraft sales, fuel and maintenance facilities are also available on the field.
“We’re growing,” Rogers says. “Our fuel sales are up. People are requesting space for their planes. That’s why we’re scrambling to build some new aprons that will accommodate new hangar growth.
West Memphis Municipal Airport
West Memphis’ airport deals primarily in small corporate jets and general aviation. While it has no scheduled commercial flights, it is a reliever airport, designated to provide relief or additional capacity to an area when the primary commercial airport(s) reach capacity, for Memphis International Airport, says airport manager Candra Suiter.
She says there are no plans for building or remodeling, however they will clean and re-stripe the runway this summer.
She estimates the ratio of travelers to be approximately 55 percent business to 45 percent recreational.
“The future for our airport looks wonderful,” Suiter says. “There is a lot of new industry coming to the area, and it looks promising that business will pick up even more.”
ARKANSAS’ TOP COMMERCIAL AIRPORTS
Passenger counts at Arkansas’ eight commercial airports are among the highest they’ve ever been. This graph tabulates total annual passenger counts from each airport.
Clinton National Airport (LIT)
Northwest Arkansas Regional
Fort Smith Regional Airport (FSM)
Texarkana Regional Airport (TXK)
Jonesboro Municipal Airport (JBR)
South Arkansas Regional Airport (ELD)
Boone County Regional Airport (HRO)
Memorial Field Airport (HOT)