Northwest Arkansas Regional airport numbers are on the rise

Sunday, May 11th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LITTLE ROCK (AP) _ Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport now offers nonstop trips to many of the same airports as airlines departing Little Rock do _ and to a few they don't.

Counting additions that have been announced, travelers can choose from 47 departing flights a day during the week to 10 nonstop destinations from Northwest Arkansas. That includes the state's only flights to LaGuardia Airport in New York, Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey and Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.

The airport, southwest of Bentonville at the small town of Highfill, also announced two daily flights to Cincinnati from Delta Connection last week that will begin in July. Little Rock National Airport, Adams Field, already has service to that airport.

The Little Rock airport has 67 departures a day during the week to 17 airports in 15 cities. Its nonstop offerings include flights to Baltimore/Washington, Detroit, Las Vegas, New Orleans and Phoenix.

Arkansas' busiest airports said their services are complementary and good for the state.

``It's not a competitive situation with the two airports,'' said Philip Launius, spokesman for the Little Rock airport.

The Northwest Arkansas airport, which opened in 1998 on one of the few relatively flat places among the area's rolling pastureland, is succeeding in one of the nation's fastest-growing metropolitan areas where the major employers include Wal-Mart Stores Inc. in Bentonville, Springdale-based Tyson Foods Inc. and the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.

A spokesman for Comair, which will operate the flights to Cincinnati, has said Procter & Gamble's presence in Fayetteville was an important factor in adding the service. Procter & Gamble, which makes a variety of products and works with Wal-Mart, is headquartered at Cincinnati.

``We're just blessed to be at the right place at the right time,'' said airport director Kelly Johnson.

Little Rock's airport remains much larger in terms of passenger boardings, with more than 1 million in 2002 compared with more than 400,000 in Northwest Arkansas last year. Both offer flights directly to Atlanta ; Charlotte, N.C.; Chicago; Dallas/Fort Worth; Houston; Memphis; and St. Louis.

Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport's location at Highfill is better for other parts of the region, particularly fast-growing Benton County. The airport has seven gates, with more in the works.

Johnson said the airport's primary market includes Washington and Benton counties. The airport also draws from a wider area that includes parts of Oklahoma, Missouri and Kansas for a total of more than 800,000 people.

The Little Rock airport has 12 gates and a substantial list of airlines. Launius said the airport's primary market is a 75-mile radius that includes 35 counties and about 1.2 million people. But he said it also looks to draw from 62 counties statewide covering nearly 2 million people.

Johnson said the Northwest Arkansas airport's growth is ahead of schedule, although she said that brings a set of challenges. For example, she said, the airport's infrastructure must keep up with its growth without becoming overextended.

So far this year, the Northwest Arkansas airport has announced additional flights to Newark and Cincinnati. Johnson said the airport also is looking at four other possible cities: Los Angeles, Detroit, Minneapolis and Salt Lake City. An announcement adding one of those could come this year, Johnson said.

Johnson said her airport probably will need 500,000 to 600,000 passenger boardings a year before it can get the serious attention of low-fare carriers. But she said the airport would have to study the impact of such an airline, which could affect the frequency of flights that's so important to business travelers.

All of Southwest's planes are Boeing 737s that seat 122 to 137 people. Johnson also said that if a low-fare airline were to come to Northwest Arkansas, it might not be Southwest. Besides Little Rock, the carrier already flies into Tulsa.