Aaron Burkes, CEO of Northwest Arkansas National Airport (XNA), said he doesn’t expect long-term impacts as a result of the coronavirus, or COVID-19, but it will likely affect the Highfill airport for the next year until a vaccine is developed.
Burkes spoke Wednesday (March 4) to members of XNA’s board of directors during an operations committee meeting in which board members recommended approval for a scaled-down design of the project to expand the terminal and build a bridge connecting the parking deck to the existing entrance. The members also recommended approval for Fentress Architects to design the western concourse project.
Burkes said the virus could affect enplanement growth and might lead it to flatten but shouldn’t change facility needs or projections over the next five to 10 years. Airline trade groups have projected nationwide enplanements will fall in 2020, down from expected growth of 4.1%, he said. Burkes is unsure whether XNA enplanements will fall in 2020, from 2019. In January, enplanements increased 18.8% to 67,306, from the same month in 2019.
Companies, including those in Northwest Arkansas, have requested employees to refrain from traveling and to conduct meetings via the internet, he said. “Some of the companies, Amazon and others as you know, are already taking more drastic measures, canceling trips, canceling conferences,” Burkes added. “It’s going to be a big impact.”
Kelly Johnson, chief operating officer and airport director, said staff have been working with the health department, keeping in touch with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While XNA doesn’t offer international flights, about 10% of the airport’s traffic comprises international travelers, she said. In 2018, XNA had nearly as many international travelers as Clinton National Airport in Little Rock.
XNA has ordered additional personal protective equipment, and was backordered on surgical masks, Johnson said, noting the mask shortage. The program XNA has in place to address the virus was updated and is similar to previous outbreaks, such as the swine flu and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).
Quarantine areas are being developed and are mostly in the Little Rock area, she said. In a worst-case scenario, if someone needed to be placed in quarantine, the person might have to be taken by bus to a quarantine site, she said. XNA is not set up to have a quarantine area on site.
The board also discussed adding hand sanitizer stations throughout the airport for passengers and to clean areas that are touched often, such as the button people push to obtain a parking ticket.
“Airports are certainly a gathering place for people from disparate places,” board member Sara Lilygren said. “I just wondered how it’s going to affect our operations.”
Burkes said when considering how it might affect XNA, one can look to airline stocks, which have fallen 40% to 50% in the past month. He added that airplanes use a filtration system similar to hospitals that can capture viruses and that the air in airplanes is recirculated every two to three minutes.
With regard to the terminal project, board members recommended the approval of a $15.99 million project to connect the parking deck to the terminal with a 20-foot-wide sky bridge. The project will include an expansion to the terminal entrance, a lobby, a canopy leading to the parking lot and the bridge over the road in front of the existing entrance. The 16,167-square-foot project was one of three options board members considered after officials cited concerns with the cost of the original terminal project. The original project was projected to cost $28.02 million and would allow for a 43,941-square-foot expansion to the front of the terminal.
The other two options the board considered Wednesday would cost $12.55 million and $13.92 million and have been 11,220 square feet and 11,763 square feet, respectively. In October 2018, the board approved a $1.87 million contract with Hight Jackson Associates of Rogers to design the project. Hight Jackson is working on the project with RS&H, Garver, Terracon and Connico. Nabholz was hired to complete the pre-construction work on the project.
The project is expected to be completed along with the renovation of the interior of the terminal near the existing entrance, Burkes said. Those who take the bridge would be able to walk into the terminal and directly to the checkpoint area on the second floor. Larry Perkin, partner for Hight Jackson, said design work should be completed in eight to 10 months, and construction should take about 18 months.
In other business, board members recommended Fentress Architects to design the western concourse project. Fentress is expected to work with Hight Jackson and Garver on the project. The addition of a concourse is one of several large projects XNA plans to work on this year.