NEA regional airport study could be complete by summer’s end

by George Jared ([email protected]) 1,007 views 

There has been a push for many years to create expanded commercial air service in Northeast Arkansas. A research project is now underway to determine if expanded commercial service is feasible in the region.

Regional residents who wish to fly commercially must drive to Little Rock or Memphis which can add hours to trips. The Federal Aviation Administration and the Arkansas Division of Aeronautics are conducting a study as to whether a regional airport needs to be built somewhere in a 19-county area in Northeast Arkansas.

One airport that might be a candidate to build a new airport would be the Walnut Ridge Airport. A former World War II pilot training center, the airport has three major runways and in terms of runway square footage, its the second largest in Arkansas.

State Rep. Fran Cavenaugh, R-Walnut Ridge, told Talk Business & Politics there have been no talks about expanding the airport that is located near the Williams Baptist University campus. She said it’s early and information still needs to be gathered.

State Rep. Jack Ladyman, R-Jonesboro, approached the AAC more than a year ago and requested the study. He thinks a regional airport would be a boon the region’s economy.

I feel like NEA has grown to the point that we could support something like that here,” he said.

Surveys are being distributed and information is being collected, Garver senior project manager and aviation leader Blake Roberson told Talk Business & Politics. We are analyzing the need for commercial air service in Northeast Arkansas,” he said.

The area under consideration stretches from the Missouri-Arkansas border to the north and the Mississippi River to the east. Stone County is the furthest western point, while St. Francis County is the most southern. The East Arkansas Planning & Development District is conducting the survey of residents in the target region. Surveys will be collected through May 5, EAPDD Director of Economic and Community Development Jeff Morris told Talk Business & Politics.

About 3,500 surveys have already been collected but more are needed, he said.

EAPDD is a nonprofit, regional planning and development organization, according to its mission statement. The Arkansas Legislature in 1969 designated eight, multi-county districts. EAPDD covers a 12-county area in the heart of NEA.

Once all the surveys are collected, they will be processed and the information will be generated into a report, Garver senior aviation planner John Rostas said. The report will detail the needs for an airport in the area and how feasible it would be to build one. Everyone in the region, even those who dont fly or fly rarely, should complete a survey.

Socioeconomic factors, key industry needs, an analysis of general air service demand and other factors will be studied during this initial phase. The region is slated for stagnant population and wage growth through 2043, according to some research already conducted. Household incomes are projected to grow by about 3% region-wide, while the population is expected to grow only about 0.16%.

The metrics only tell part of the story. They dont tell the whole story,” Rostas said. One question we have to ask, Is there enough population to support expanded air service?’”

One key metric that will be harder to gauge will be how many passengers could be lured into coming to an airport in Northeast Arkansas as opposed to going to a different one, Roberson said. They can accurately tally how many people from this region utilize air service, but they are also trying to determine inbound traffic from outside the region, including other states such as Missouri, that might use the air service, he said.

The metrics generated would be shared with the airlines such as Delta, Southwest, American Airlines or others, to determine interest in providing service to the region. Airlines dont share internal data so theres no way to know what they are looking for. The report will be provided to them and then they can decide if it is worth it, he said.

Does this work for the airlines? Thats a question they would have to answer,” Rostas said.

How much a regional airport would cost to build and where it would be located would be determined in later phases, Rostas said. It could cost between $250 million to $500 million. It could take five or as many as 10 years to complete a project of this magnitude, he said.

Projects like this are rare, he said. The last regional airport built with funds from the FAA was built in North Dakota more than a decade ago.

The goal is to have the report completed by the end of the summer, Roberson said. It will cost nearly $400,000 to generate the report and that is being paid for with FAA and Arkansas Department of Aeronautic funds, he added. Three different air service projections will be generated — high, medium and low.

We hope to measure the underlying demand,” he said. We need to figure out the needs of the people and industries in the region.”