Fort Smith Regional Airport Director John Parker said there has been “very little movement” on negotiations with the Air National Guard Bureau over the terms of a lease that could place the airport out of compliance for Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) grant funding by October 2016.
However, in a recent interview with Talk Business & Politics, he reported a small silver lining in talks with the Washington bureau, which acknowledged the airport could be eligible for an Airport Joint Use Agreement (AJUA). Without the agreement, the airport would technically not be eligible for critical FAA grant funding support.
While the AJUA would not solve the issue created when the airport lost the 188th manned mission as a tenant, it would cut into its annual deficit spending woes. To meet the terms of the AJUA, Fort Smith Regional would have to show government operations on the airfield qualify as “significant use,” which could mean having five based aircraft onsite, 300 operations per month, or 5 million pounds of landing weight by government aircraft.
“Because we have C-130s that utilize our field and have even when we had a flying mission at the guard base, we have requested to reestablish the AJUA due to their significant use,” Parker explained. “That would accommodate the 5 million pounds of landing weight per month. We’ve had AJUAs established in the past for the F-16s and A-10s. There is a worksheet you fill out that IDs all the costs to maintain the airfield, and the joint use is a percentage of that cost. In the past, it’s been about $61,000, but we don’t know what that cost would be at this time.”
THE ‘COST AVOIDANCE’ ISSUE
That said, Parker acknowledges that obtaining the AJUA is a slow process, pointing out that he had submitted a request in October, “and here we are in April” with it still pending.
Still, he’s hopeful.
“Currently that request is in, and they are working that issue at the National Guard bureau. There is movement and contact and communications to make this happen,” Parker said. “If you show us a different path, we’ll proceed down it to try and mitigate the deficit spending this has put us in.”
The airport is an enterprise fund, which means it doesn’t rely on tax dollars for operations, and must actually “make the money it spends,” Parker said.
The original lease agreement between the two parties allowed the Air Guard to utilize 141 acres of airfield. The FAA allowed the airport to lease this land for $1 a year to the 188th. In turn, the 188th provided services to the facility – like aircraft rescue and firefighting assistance – and also reimbursed it for maintenance and infrastructure upgrades. This arrangement resulted in a “cost avoidance” to the Fort Smith airport of $400,000 a year, which was significant especially in light of the facility’s small-by-comparison $2.6 million operating budget. Not coincidentally, Parker said, it’s also right around the total the facility is operating in the red each year ($360,000) now that the arrangement is no longer in place.
NO SURPRISES, NO GUARANTEES
The airport had prepared for deficit spending in the years leading up to the loss of the 188th manned mission, and has been able to weather the storm so far, Parker said.
“Not a single thing that has occurred to us has been a surprise,” he explained. “We have told anybody and everyone who would listen that all these things we’re having to deal with now were coming. Fortunately, our reserve is still in the surplus, and there has been some projected deficit we obviously didn’t spend a lot of money on. We had projected winter operations, and were fortunate to not have a winter event. Normally we have a snow and ice type of event or two between January 1 and March. So that is helpful for us because we had to project it, but didn’t have to expend. Those kinds of things have an effect.”
The FAA is aware of the AJUA request, Parker said, and while that “can’t hurt” chances of an extension should a resolution not be in place by October, there are no guarantees.
“The one governmental agency that has bent over backwards and has come to the aid of the airport, has been the FAA,” Parker said in a previous interview with TB&P. “They have gone way above and beyond to try to resolve some of the negative issues that have come to us because of the decision to remove the flying mission.”
Part of that help includes aiding the airport in the acquisition of a new fire truck that will be delivered in May. It is also helping fund construction of a $2.6 million fire station during the 2017 fiscal year.
Fire services and other infrastructure play a key role in supporting commercial traffic at the airport. The airport is served by American Airlines and Delta, with direct flights to Dallas-Fort Worth and Atlanta. Enplanements at the Fort Smith Regional Airport totaled 86,704 in 2015, down 7.1% compared to 2014. The 2014 traffic was 92,869, the first time the airport had topped the 90,000 mark since 2007. December enplanements in Fort Smith were 6,315, down from 7,409 in December 2014.