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Airlines tweak amid Little Rock airport dip

by Noel Oman | February 24, 2021 at 2:30 a.m.
FILE - Passengers check in at Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport/Adams Field in 2017.

Passenger traffic at Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport/Adams Field remains anemic compared with numbers recorded before the covid-19 pandemic, but airlines appear to be trying to entice passengers back to the state's largest airport.

Clinton National saw passenger traffic drop in January to 72,572 passengers, a 54.2% fall from the 158,475 the airport saw in the same month in 2020.

Last year, total passenger traffic declined 56% to 977,342, the first time in years that fewer than 1 million people departed from or arrived at Clinton National.

The dearth of passengers hasn't stopped the airlines from experimenting.

At least two routes are being reinstated, most notably the American Airlines flight between Clinton National and Washington, D.C.

Other service that is either new or returning includes routes to sunnier climes and that are offered seasonally. They are designed to attract leisure travelers, which account for most of the passenger traffic at Clinton National.

The new service includes a Saturday flight to Miami, which will be a new connection for Clinton National. Miami is a major hub for American Airlines, the airline that is offering the flight.

But flights can disappear from airline schedules just as quickly as they go on.

Shane Carter, an airport spokesman, cautioned that the airline schedules remain subject to change, more so than during pandemic "than any other time I've seen."

Michael Boyd, president of Boyd Group International, an aviation forecasting firm based in Evergreen, Colo., agrees that in the midst of the "nasty pandemic, we have an airline industry that is really moving fast.

"Allegiant will go into a market. If it works, fine. If not, they'll leave. Frontier is doing the same thing. United is doing the same thing. And I think right now Little Rock is the beneficiary of that."

Clinton National now has three airlines -- Southwest, United and Frontier -- serving Denver. Southwest and Delta both now serve Atlanta.

Allegiant will be starting a new seasonal service to St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport in May. That route will be part of Allegiant's seasonal service that includes flights to Los Angeles and Destin-Fort Walton Beach, Fla., Carter said.

In addition to resuming daily service to Washington, D.C., in April, American will be starting the weekly flight to Miami in June.

Boyd said he doesn't believe American "is taking a huge risk."

"Once a week is going to work," he said. "There's enough traffic probably, and the kind of traffic they are going to be carrying is leisure traffic. Leisure traffic will hold off: 'I won't leave Friday. I will leave Saturday.'"

Further, Miami is a major hub for American, Boyd said. It will allow for people to connect to St. Kitts or Barbados and other destinations in the Caribbean Ocean and beyond.

"All of that is there," he said. "And it's usually Saturday when that happens. Or when cruise traffic comes back."

Another factor in the experimentation is the airlines have excess aircraft to try a different mix of routes they wouldn't have had the capacity to do before the pandemic.

"They can give it a crack," Boyd said. "They can try it out. Again, these people did not fall off the turnip truck. They know what they're doing.

"Frankly, you've got nothing to lose. All it's going to do is make the air travel propensity at Little Rock stronger than it was before."

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