Traffic at the Fort Smith Regional Airport is slowly recovering from COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns in 2020, and Airport Director Michael Griffin estimates a new connection to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport or a major northeast hub could happen in 2023.
Enplanements at the airport in the first seven months of 2022 totals 35,427, up 24.8% compared with the same period in 2021. The total is down 52% compared with the same period in 2019, the year before the pandemic hit when enplanements totaled 95,670 for the year. July 2022 enplanements were 5,823, up 14.9% compared with 5,068 in July 2021.
U.S. enplanements through May totaled 76.108 million, the latest data available from the U.S. Department of Transportation, up 31.3% compared with the same period in 2021.
It was announced Wednesday (Aug. 10) that the airport would receive an $855,000 grant from the Small Community Air Service Development program of the U.S. Department of Transportation. The money can be used as a revenue guarantee for a carrier and for marketing of a new service.
Griffin said he and the airport’s consultant, Middleton, Wisc.-based Mead & Hunt, will within the next few weeks begin working with American Airlines on a second route out of Fort Smith to be supported by the federal grant. American’s connection to Dallas-Fort Worth is the only connection now out of Fort Smith. Delta stopped its direct flights between Fort Smith and Atlanta in July 2020.
Ongoing issues within the U.S. airline industry, such as staffing shortages, could complicate the effort, Griffin said.
“Although we have the grant, it’s not a guarantee of service,” Griffin said. “With the pilot shortage, and all the other issues, a lot of it will be based on do they have the resources to do this (add a flight).”
He said Chicago is the “likely option” for a new route, but a major northeast hub would be pursued if a Chicago connection doesn’t work. The grant also does not mean the effort to recruit other airlines will end. Griffin said he and the consultants have “meetings with multiple airlines on a regular basis.”
Enplanements were on a growth trend prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. The last time enplanements topped 100,000 was in 2005 with 102,607. The enplanement record is 112,782 set in 1975. Following are the previous 10 years of enplanement totals.