Eastern route focus of Fort Smith Regional Airport director; travel up more than 18%

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 1,692 views 

In a city founded to help push the country westward, heading east is the top challenge for Fort Smith Regional Airport Director Michael Griffin. The airport has four direct flights a day to Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW), but no flights to eastern U.S. hubs.

American Airlines has four flights a day to DFW, and sometimes a fifth flight around the holidays. But Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines stopped its Fort Smith flights in July 2020 and has yet to restart the direct service to Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

Griffin said restoring an eastern connection is the most requested thing he hears from the community. The Fort Smith Regional Airport Commission has hired Middleton, Wisc.-based Mead & Hunt to provide air service consulting and help recruit Delta or any other airline that can add flights to Fort Smith. Mead & Hart have set up meetings with Griffin during an upcoming conference in Baton Rouge and “are constantly keeping an eye on the Fort Smith market,” Griffin said. The consultants monitor market trends, and have software to know where people are traveling, he added.

Knowing where people travel is a key component in capturing more travelers who live in what is known as the airport’s “catchment area,” which stretches north to the Bobby Hopper Tunnel on Interstate 49, south to Mena, east to Russellville and west beyond Stigler, Okla.

The “catchment area” for the Fort Smith Regional Airport.

Griffin said if more people from the area would fly out of Fort Smith, the enplanement gain would result in more flight options. But he also said the airport has to provide more options to get more travelers.

“We’re not just sitting back and waiting. We’re trying to drum up more business wherever we can,” Griffin told Talk Business & Politics. “The options need to be there, and that’s what I’m working on. Our American passengers have started to come back stronger, but we need to get that carrier, whether it’s Delta or maybe even another American flight, that can get us to an eastern destination.”

Traffic is returning to Fort Smith after COVID-19 significantly disrupted global airline travel. Between January and September the airport posted 33,990 enplanements, up 18.1% compared with the 28,791 in the same period of 2020, but down 51.5% in the same period of 2019.

Prior to 2020, the airport had posted four consecutive years of enplanement growth. Following are the previous seven years of enplanement totals.
2020: 38,660
2019: 95,670
2018: 90,501
2017: 89,582
2016: 87,488
2015: 86,704
2014: 92,869