Fort Smith Regional Airport enplanements up in 2021, but still below 2019 traffic
Air travel is slowly returning to Fort Smith, but at levels still well below those prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Enplanements at the Fort Smith Regional Airport in 2021 totaled 45,218, up 22.8% compared with 2020 but 50.8% below the pre-pandemic year of 2019.
Airport Director Michael Griffin said travel began to return in late 2021, but the Omicron variant surge slowed the traffic. He believes the recent decline in U.S. and Arkansas COVID cases and Spring travel plans will bring another gain in traffic.
“I’m hopeful that this variant is leveling off about the time that folks are booking their Spring Break travel. I really see that (travel) coming back up. Our numbers really began to climb, but that (Omicron) slowed that down,” Griffin said.
Data from the trade group Airlines for America show a decline in air travel in Arkansas. The data shows demand as of January 2022 was down 22.2% compared with January 2019. As of October 2021, the latest data provided by Airlines for America, shows a 38% enplanement decline nationwide compared with the same period in 2019.
Fort Worth-based American Airlines remains the only commercial carrier servicing Fort Smith. The carrier has four to five flights a day, Griffin said. Airport staff continues to work with Middleton, Wisc.-based Mead & Hunt to recruit another airline. Part of that work includes applying for a grant through the U.S. Department of Transportation that would provide revenue guarantees for a limited time for an airline providing service to Fort Smith.
A factor outside of the airport’s control is that airlines face a shortage of pilots for regional routes, Griffin said. The shortage means airlines are more selective about where they expand regional connections.
“That’s not saying we won’t get any service, but that’s an issue they (airlines) have to look at seriously before they make that decision (to expand service at regional airports),” Griffin said.
Griffin also said construction on a $22 million runway extension set to begin in mid-April will not interfere with commercial traffic. The 1,300-foot extension is needed to support a planned foreign military pilot training center to be located at Ebbing Air National Guard Base at the airport. The base was selected last year to be the long-term pilot training center supporting F-16 and F-35 fighter planes purchased by countries participating in the U.S. Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program. The city of Fort Smith committed $5 million toward the extension and the state will contribute $17 million.
Although Ebbing was selected as the lead site, a final decision on where the center will be located is not expected until March 2023. The tentative schedule has Ebbing receiving the Singapore F-16s in 2023 and the F-35s in 2025.
Prior to 2020, the airport had posted four consecutive years of enplanement growth. Following are the previous eight years of enplanement totals.