Airport flying high

Northwest Arkansas airport to open new terminal

by: D.R. STEWART World Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 23, 2011
8/23/2011 4:32:41 AM

BENTONVILLE, Ark. – A new $20 million, 50,000-square-foot passenger concourse at the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport south of town will open Wednesday, and airport officials are hoping the addition will attract low-cost airline service.

“We hear complaints about the cost of our flights, but it’s because we do have so many destinations to accommodate our business traffic,” said Philip Taldo, chairman of the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport Authority board of directors. “Hopefully, over the next 10 years, we will be able to attract a low-cost carrier.”

Today, the Arkansas airport is served by six airlines, including low-cost Allegiant Air, compared with five carriers serving Tulsa International Airport.

Unlike Tulsa International, the Arkansas airport’s passenger traffic is 70 percent business travelers.

E1airportmap0823.jpg It was business traffic and a push by the major corporations that call northwest Arkansas home that persuaded the citizens of Fayetteville, Springdale, Rogers, Lowell and Bentonville, and Washington and Benton counties, to establish the airport authority that built the $101 million airport in 1998.

“None of this would have been possible without the big four – Wal-Mart, Tyson, J.B. Hunt and the University of Arkansas,” Taldo said. “They had to get everybody on board – the counties and cities – and I thought ‘that’s not going to happen.’ It had never happened before.”

Having former Gov. Bill Clinton in the White House didn’t hurt the region’s efforts to build a new airport. Neither did having on board major proponent Alice Walton, daughter of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton.

But the clincher was Drake Field, set in a valley south of Fayetteville and the region’s only commercial airport in the 1990s.

“Every time you had a foggy morning, you could not get in or out of Drake Field,” Taldo said. “And there was no room to expand.”

The regional airport has been successful.

In 1999, its first full year in service, it attracted 653,022 passengers. In 2010, passenger traffic totaled 1,139,801 people, a 74.5 percent increase from the inaugural year.

By comparison, Tulsa International’s peak year for passenger traffic during the past decade was 2001, when 3.35 million passengers boarded or exited commercial aircraft.

In 2010, Tulsa International’s passenger traffic was 2.85 million people, down 15 percent from 2001.

While Tulsa International has undergone more than $40 million in passenger terminal construction projects in the last 10 years, the new A concourse at the Arkansas airport is the first major addition to the passenger terminal.

Scott Van Laningham, executive director and CEO of the Arkansas airport, said the new concourse nearly quadruples public space at the airport.

“In the past, once you cleared security, you were a one-minute walk to any gate,” Van Laningham said. “Now, you are a five-minute walk to the end of the concourse.”

The architect/designer of the concourse is Grisham Smith & Partners of Atlanta, which created a public space of blues, earth tones and copper-colored highlights suggesting the water, sky, forests and mountains of northwest Arkansas.

“It was intended to bring the natural beauty of northwest Arkansas into the terminal,” Van Laningham said. “Before, we had nothing in the building that established you as being in northwest Arkansas.”

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