Garver has been a part of design teams for multimillion-dollar projects for the largest airports in Northwest Arkansas, contributing a combined economic impact of more than $600 million for the region annually.
Over the past decade, investments totaling $150 million have flown into Northwest Arkansas National Airport (XNA) and airports of the five largest cities in Northwest Arkansas. More than half of that amount was spent over the past five years, said Adam White, senior project manager for Garver.
White said over the next five years, investments of more than $100 million are expected into these airports, and Garver looks to continue to play a role in those aviation projects. Garver is an employee-owned engineering, planning, architectural and environmental services firm with more than 700 employees in 30 offices across 13 states.
White leads the company’s aviation design center and the aviation Fayetteville teams and oversees 12 employees. Aviation comprises one of the big three divisions for Garver, includes more than 100 employees and accounts for about 25% of Garver’s business.
Some of the most significant projects Garver has focused on in Northwest Arkansas include those to expand airport capacity, such as the expansion and renovation of the XNA terminal and new hangar development at area municipal airports.
One of the most significant XNA projects regards the expansion of concourse B. The project could add up to eight new gates and nearly 75,000 square feet along the northwest side of the terminal, White said. The $50 million to $100 million project could be completed in phases and is expected to allow for wider body aircraft.
Also, design work is underway to renovate the front of the terminal. The project includes an elevated bridge connecting the parking deck to the terminal and the checkpoint area on the second floor of the terminal.
Construction also continues on the taxiway at XNA. The project includes reconstruction of taxiway B to address pavement distress and was part of the airport’s long-term development plans.
Meanwhile, general aviation airports in Northwest Arkansas are working on capacity projects, focused on hangar development, White said. This includes utility infrastructure work and taxiway development to allow for hangars. About 500,000 square feet of hangar space is either under construction or in design or programming phases among all Northwest Arkansas airports, he said.
“Hangars are at a premium,” White said. “Every airport in Northwest Arkansas has a hangar waiting list of 30 or 40 people just looking for a spot to put their plane. People are basing their planes in Joplin (Mo.), Neosho (Mo.), all over the place just because hangar space is at a premium in Northwest Arkansas. These airports are all growing their footprints to allow that to happen. Just as soon as you build the infrastructure, people come and take advantage of it.”
Bentonville Municipal Airport has started design work on the east taxiway extension. The project, with public and private funding, will construct a full-length parallel taxiway along the east side of the airport and improve safety by allowing operations on the runway without a back taxi. A taxiway on the west side of the runway was completed in 2018. This led to the development of two hangars, and two more are in design or under construction.
In 2019, work was completed on the Thaden Fieldhouse and west terminal apron. The project was completed with public and private funding and included the construction of a new terminal, hangar, restaurant and circular apron on the northwest side of the airport. A turf runway was completed last year, serving backcountry and leisure flyers.
The airport has almost doubled its base aircraft in the past five years and become a hub for leisure and backcountry flying that’s tied to the area’s push for trails and mountain biking, White said. Pilots can fly on a plane, land on a grass strip and bike the Buffalo National River area.
“A big part of that was a privately-funded turf runway that they constructed,” he said. “The planes that like to land on those short fields, they have big balloon tires. They don’t like to land on pavement. They like to land on grass. Bentonville led the country working with the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] to develop a plan to put in a turf runway right next to the paved runway and have them both in operation. It’s an official runway. It’s charted and secure and safe where they can support that operation.”
Chad Cox, executive director for Summit Aviation, said the Ozarks has 64 airstrips open for pilots of small aircraft to visit and take part in outdoor activities, such as hiking, biking, floating, climbing and shooting.
“Thaden Field in Bentonville is a usual launch point since all of your outfitting needs can be covered. Summit Aviation provides tail wheel and off-airport training, provisions such as camping gear, oil, fuel and snacks. Also located within the Fieldhouse [the FBO at Thaden Field] is the OZ1 Flying Club and instructors who can provide details and recommendations for flying destinations.”
Leisure and backcountry flying is still very niche, Cox said. Aside from accessible destinations, such as Gaston’s White River Resort, creating a network of airstrips called FLY OZ is a new concept. In other regions, mostly in the West, pilot associations have created maps and databases of airfields. While those are great networks, he said, FLY OZ has an advantage because the airstrips are close to each other, at a lower altitude and centrally located in the United States.
“The turf runway at the Bentonville airport is akin to a gateway trail for hikers and mountain bikers,” Cox said. “It is the first turf runway most students in the area will take off from and land. It also provides a welcome mat to visitors in the area saying ‘little planes with big tires who like to land on grass, you’ve made it.’”
OTHER AIRPORT PROJECTS
As it works to meet the demand for growth, Garver looks ahead 20 years when it plans airport projects, White said. The 20-year outlook is factored into the pavement strength that’s installed and expected development as a result.
Recent projects at Rogers Executive Airport include apron reconstruction, runway rehabilitation and taxiway construction. The ongoing taxiway project consists of the redevelopment of the existing hangar area and the construction of a new taxiway to support future hangar development, allowing for hangar space for up to 50 new aircraft.
Projects at Springdale Municipal Airport include a terminal access drive, runway rehabilitation and the east taxiway extension. The latter project is in the programming phase and will involve extending the east taxiway to the runway.
The Fayetteville Airport at Drake Field recently completed apron rehabilitation, taxiway lighting rehabilitation and the widening and rehabilitation of taxiway B.
Recent projects at Siloam Springs Municipal Airport include taxiway rehabilitation, taxi lane construction and taxiway light rehabilitation, which is ongoing.
Between 75% and 90% of the funding for general aviation infrastructure comes from state and federal money, White said. And most of the federal money comes from airport users, including a portion of a passenger’s ticket goes that goes into a fund. Taxes on fuel and aviation sales support the state funding.
The biggest driver in demand for airport infrastructure projects has been the addition of companies in Northwest Arkansas, he said. Those companies might have offices here but will fly to their home offices that might be out of state instead of driving four or five hours.
“All that additional economic growth in the area is pushing the growth in aviation as well,” White said. “And just the sheer number of people in Northwest Arkansas is driving XNA’s growth.”
Arkansas has 90 airports, including eight that provide commercial service and 82 general aviation airports. Collectively, they have a $3.56 billion economic impact on the state, according to a recent report released by the Arkansas Department of Aeronautics.
The 2036 Arkansas Statewide Airport System Plan Update shows the total economic impact of airports comprises nearly 3% of the state’s gross state product.
In Northwest Arkansas, the six largest airports have a combined $603.48 million economic impact annually, including XNA’s $463.34 million impact. The report measured several metrics for economic impact, including jobs, payroll and output. For this article, the output metric was used to calculate the annual economic impact. It was not combined with the other parameters to reach a larger amount as recommended by those who completed the report’s analysis.
“Economic output is defined as the number of goods and services generated annually by an airport, its businesses, employees, visitors and the multiplier effect,” said Matthew Roddy, civil associate of aviation for Michael Baker International. “For most airport businesses, those generating sales, the output is estimated to be equal to the business’s revenue. However, for some agencies such as government airport sponsors, there are no generated sales. For these agencies, the annual operating cost is used as an output, which assumes output is approximately equivalent to what the agency spends. In these cases, the output includes payroll, which is why payroll and output should be kept separate when describing total economic impacts.”
Nearly 2,500 Arkansas businesses were surveyed for the report. Sixty-two percent say their employees use commercial airline service, 48% have clients or vendors who use commercial airlines to visit them in Arkansas and 18% lease, charter, own or have partial ownership of a general aviation aircraft.
Between 2016 and 2036, commercial enplanements in Arkansas are expected to rise 61.1%, or by nearly 1 million enplanements, to 2.9 million, the report shows. Enplanements are the passengers flying out.
Regarding general aviation, more than 300 additional aircraft are expected to be based at Arkansas airports by 2036. General aviation operations, which include aircraft takeoffs and landings, are expected to increase by 23.1%, from 1.6 million in 2016 to 1.97 million in 2036.
The report identified $334 million in needed improvements to general aviation airports in Arkansas over the next 20 years, and more than $215 million of the amount would go toward airfield improvements.