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Traffic increases hit state airports

By Chris Bahn

This article was published August 3, 2014 at 2:27 a.m.

Graphs showing Arkansas airport traffic.

Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport executives expected to see a bump in traffic to close out the first half of 2014. Wal-Mart Stores Inc.'s annual shareholders meeting draws thousands of travelers from around the world, and June is generally the start of vacation season.

What caught them off guard is a more-than-8 percent increase in yearly traffic compared with the same six months in 2013. Enplaned --or outbound -- passengers at Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport hit 308,961 from January through June, bucking the industry norm of modest increases or decreases.

It is possible the airport breaks 600,000 enplaned passengers for the first time in its history, eclipsing a record of 598,886 set in 2007.

"We're very encouraged by the numbers this year," said Kelly Johnson, director for Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport. "Certainly we had not planned on that big of an increase. We know this isn't happening everywhere."

Northwest Arkansas isn't alone in turning in a strong first half of 2014.

Texarkana Municipal Airport's 18,156 total of enplaned passengers for the first six months is an increase of 24.3 percent over last year. Texarkana Airport Operations Director Russell Henderson said the airport, which offers three daily commercial airline flights to Dallas, hasn't increased the number of flights offered, but has done a "better job of getting the word out that we have an airport here in southwest Arkansas."

Fort Smith Municipal Airport also enjoyed a strong first six months, increasing the number of enplaned passengers by 6.39 percent to 44,730.

Growth reported by airports in Northwest Arkansas, Fort Smith and Texarkana is not the norm, said Tom Reich, director of air service development at Avports, a private airport management and air service consulting firm.

"Nationally it seems that 1 percent, maybe 2 percent, growth is good," Reich said. "No one is seeing, on average, large-scale growth."

Little Rock's Bill and Hillary Clinton Airport/Adams Field, on the other hand, is more in line with the industry norm. Enplaned passengers were 514,958, down 6.1 percent at the midway point of the year. A decline was forecast by the airport because of service cuts by Southwest and other airlines, plus the addition of Southwest flights in the Memphis market.

"I think overall you're seeing a reduction," Clinton Airport spokesman Shane Carter said. "When you look around the country I think you'll see a lot of airports with trends that mirror what is going on here in Little Rock."

Even at a time when airlines, through consolidation, are cutting services in many existing markets, Northwest Arkansas remains hopeful it can attract more attention from airlines. There is hope a discount carrier will begin operating on a full-time basis.

Representatives from Jet Blue, Frontier and Spirit all have met with the Northwest Arkansas airport over the last year. Virgin America, Johnson said, is the only one of the five major discount carriers that has not met with the airport. Allegiant Air, which has limited service out of Northwest Arkansas, has considered the possibility of adding flights.

Northwest Arkansas currently has $950,000 in federal funds to help entice a discount carrier. Officials are filing for an extension on the small community air service grant, which expires Sept. 30.

"We are doing everything we can to make sure they know Northwest Arkansas, know the community and know they can make money from this market," Johnson said. "As much as we like to think about the airline service as a utility, that's not what they are. They're businesses looking to make money. We think there's an opportunity to grow in our market, which is what we're communicating."

Whether an airport's current traffic trends are heading up or down, Reich said airports have to continue fighting for additional service from airlines. They must maximize the flights being offered by filling them with passengers and search for ways to attract more.

"It still makes sense when you have a good story to tell, you should still keep telling it," Reich said. "Whoever speaks into the microphone and speaks loudest, is normally the one heard. It might not bear as much fruit as it did in years past, but if you don't put forth the effort you're guaranteed not to get any fruit at all."

SundayMonday Business on 08/03/2014

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