General aviation growing in Northwest Arkansas

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 314 views 

When a company needs to move a few people around, for brief trips, and it has the resources, nothing beats a small airplane and general aviation airports to service them.

For nearly 15 years, the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport (XNA) has provided commercial airline service in the region. The general aviation (GA) airports affiliated with the region's five biggest cities stay comparatively busy themselves with corporate, cargo, charter and personal or recreational flights.

Each has advantages.

Two, Fayetteville's and Rogers', have particular attributes. Until XNA opened in fall 1998, Fayetteville Executive Airport, previously known as Drake Field, hosted airline traffic. Its facilities mean it still can host most sizes of passenger jets, now as charters. That's handy for large groups flying to and from the University of Arkansas, said Ray Boudreaux, airport manager. The UA has two aircraft hangared there.

A feature of Rogers Municipal Airport (Carter Field) – besides its longstanding ties to Wal-Mart Stores Inc. – is that it's one of Arkansas' two U.S. Customs flight points. The other is Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport in Little Rock.

Yes, says Manager David Krutsch, it's the Wal-Mart business needs that drove the need for port-of-entry status, complete with staffing by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Flights coming from other countries have to land at a port of entry before their final destination for passenger and cargo clearance. As small as the Rogers airport is, "there's no line for customs," Krutsch said.

Still, what is the appeal for the business traveler of avoiding commercial airline travel?

Corporations see a "need to control the schedule, we hear that over and over again, and be able to return to the office at the end of the day to take care of business," Krutsch said. "It has been true for the whole history of general aviation. It's the nature of transportation, including ground transportation."

GA airports – not commercial passenger facilities – also support important community services such as air ambulances, "angel flights" (donated, usually medically related air travel), law enforcement and occasionally transient military use, he said.

Another key to GA airports is how they serve flight crews, chiefly in fuel sales and sometimes amenities. This generally is handled as a private enterprise, called a fixed-base operator. The Rogers FBO is Beaver Lake Aviation, founded in 1986 and owned by Wal-Mart. It sells fuel but also offers conference rooms for meetings and lounge space for crews.

The need to control a schedule is helping to boost area general aviation traffic.

"We estimate our total operations for FY 2012 were approximately 17,500 … an increase of approximately 11.7 percent versus 2011," said Krutsch of the Rogers airport.

At Fayetteville Executive, there were 36,112 operations in 2012, up 19.3% compared to 2011 traffic. In FAA terminology, either a take off or a landing is an "operation."

Krutsch cautioned that a GA airport's nighttime operations are estimates and that flight school training for obvious reasons can skew the numbers.

Dave Powell, manager of Bentonville Municipal Airport (Thaden Field) said its operation, along with its fixed-base operator Summit Aviation is enhanced by having many smaller businesses and occasional users, who could be crowded out by a facility emphasizing one large corporate customer.

For Wal-Mart vendors, "we are the place to go to if you have a one-day commitment at Wal-Mart. We are two stoplights away from the home office," he said.

The Bentonville airport also serves Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and Benton County businesses not affiliated with Wal-Mart. Powell noted that his FBO, Summit, also operates in Springdale, one of the busiest GA airports in the state.

The cities of Siloam Springs and Fayetteville serve as their own FBOs. For Fayetteville, this was a recent change when the FBO chain Million Air left in March, Boudreaux said, adding that airport staff, which already handled all other amenities, now handles fuel dispensing.

Having been a commercial airport, Drake Field had essentially no hangars and had to build them after XNA opened, Boudreaux said. Fayetteville operators of small craft had patronized the Springdale airport until then. Drake Field now has several dozen hangars of varying sizes, he said.

Fayetteville's airport hosts the Arkansas Air & Military Museum. Boudreaux said it's had six cafes since 2002, the year he was hired. While the dining room is now closed, the kitchen has been leased to chef GW Chew and his catering company, Something Better Foods.

The area's GA airports can be a bit of a drive for us with vehicles, but for planes they're barely minutes apart. What distinguishes one from another?

Boudreaux cited convenience for the businesses that fly people in and out from one over another. His finance coordinator James Nicholson called Drake Field the region's longtime "front door."

Krutsch in Rogers had a more detailed outlook with four overlapping features of GA airports: efficiency, safety, security and level of service. Efficiency for fliers refers to geographic convenience, he said, which "may not be distance but it could be time" – the time to drive or be driven to your destination after landing, the cost of refueling for the aircraft.

Safety from an airport refers to the number and skills of its ground crew, the field's track record, lighting, and animals on the runway, he said. Security is handled by a GA airport or its FBO. The federal Transportation Security Administration inspections are only at commercial airline facilities, Krutsch said. "Our security is provided as part of our partnership with Beaver Lake Aviation and their operations here."

Level of service includes the availability of office space and conference rooms, rental cars and other ground transportation, catering, and similar amenities. Some have showers, exercise equipment and napping rooms for flight crews.

The Rogers and Fayetteville managers cited a summer slowdown in business, partly due to the seasonal nature of these smaller airports but also due to the national recession.

Boudreaux noted the continuing impact of "sequestration," the ongoing hold on federal spending set by Congress and the Obama administration. The Federal Aviation Administration has a major role in airports, and it is affected by the limits.