Clinton National Airport
AMP: How’s the commercial airline industry doing, a year out from the initial shutdown? Starting to see it creep back?
Malinowski: Spring break boosted departing passenger traffic, or enplanements, at Clinton National Airport to 63 percent of pre-COVID levels, as leisure travelers comprise the majority of our passengers. We do expect a decrease over the next few weeks, with kids back in school, until we hit Memorial Day weekend and move into summer.
Mead and Hunt, an air service-development consultant representing the airport, projects our enplanements will stabilize around 65 percent later this year. The increase in traffic at Little Rock has allowed airlines to add additional options. We now have additional scheduled service to Atlanta, Denver, Las Vegas, Miami and St. Petersburg-Clearwater. Nonstop service to Washington, D.C., that was provided pre-COVID has resumed, and we expect seasonal service to Destin-Fort Walton and Los Angeles to return for the summer.
AMP: Whereas other businesses could pivot, there wasn’t much commercial airports could do in a situation like COVID. How did Clinton National adjust?
Malinowski: The airport has been utilizing federal grants to fund operations. We also implemented austerity measures, such as only purchasing necessities, delaying some capital purchases and freezing open non-essential positions. Thankfully, there were no layoffs with Little Rock Municipal Airport Commission staff.
AMP: Once things open back up completely, do you expect to see a surge in travel? Could consumers see ticket prices go up?
Malinowski: We are seeing a rise in passengers correlating with increasing vaccination rates. The airport operates like a shopping mall in that airlines lease space to operate here. We do not set airline ticket prices — a function determined by the airlines and influenced by what the market will bear. Today’s market has fewer flights and fewer seats available.
AMP: Now that renovations and runway expansions have been completed in recent years, what’s next for Clinton National?
Malinowski: The airport never reaches its destination in terms of making upgrades to provide our customers with the best possible experience. Our airport is one of only a few debt-free commercial airports in the country, and we don’t anticipate any major changes to the terminal until a long-term passenger recovery has occurred.
However, we are actively working on projects in the airfield, including a $60 million multiyear safety enhancement to Taxiway Charlie, and installing curbside canopies along the front access road to the terminal.
Chief Business Development Officer,
NWA National Airport
AMP: Post-pandemic, will passengers return in droves to commercial air travel, or will there be a gradual transition back to pre-COVID patterns?
Branch: We believe those traveling for leisure will return much earlier than business travel. This is a trend that is already apparent with very strong leisure travel demand for spring break and with bookings this summer. That said, we are starting to see more business travelers and have heard from some of our corporate partners that they are beginning to travel with greater frequency.
AMP: How does a regional airport like XNA get by when commercial air travel is impacted in such a way?
Branch: XNA is lucky to have a very strong board of directors, which has been fiscally responsible in the years leading up to the COVID pandemic. Because of this, XNA possesses reserves that guaranteed our ability to survive this extreme downturn in air travel.
Also, the federal government has provided significant funding through the COVID relief bills that have been passed. We have also worked diligently to find areas where we could cut expenses and also to protect any revenue sources we can. Overall, XNA will exit this pandemic as strong as it’s ever been financially.
AMP: NWA seems primed to continue its impressive growth. What does continued growth mean for XNA?
Branch: NWA definitely doesn’t seem to have slowed down. As the population grows, demand for air travel will also grow. XNA anticipates needing to improve and grow our facilities for this increased traffic in the coming years.
AMP: How important to the region is XNA, in terms of not just logistics but perception?
Branch: Airports are economic-development engines. They provide the ability for local businesses to connect to the world and also bring businesses from around the world conveniently. Without the connectivity an airport like XNA provides, businesses in the area would have a tougher time meeting with customers and vendors that are not located in Northwest Arkansas.
From a perception standpoint, an airport with great connectivity communicates to the world the strength and vitality of a region. XNA’s varied routes and commercial service with multiple air carriers tells the world that Northwest Arkansas is strong and can provide opportunities to all who decide to locate here.
Fort Smith Regional Airport
AMP: Were 2020 numbers down more than you expected?
Griffin: Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect, as this was new to all of us in the airport industry. We’ve all gone through tough times, but it was a new experience to have literally all passenger traffic drop so drastically.
AMP: Were they on par with what other smaller commercial airports experienced, and do you expect those numbers to begin to creep up over the next few months?
Griffin: Our passenger numbers decreased around 62 percent in 2020, which was in line with the national average. We have already seen an increase in passenger numbers [in 2021] and are hopeful that this trend will continue as more people have access to the vaccine and travel becomes part of our lives again.
AMP: How important is it for local and regional residents, not to mention area industry, to have a local option for commercial air travel and not be reliant on NWA?
Griffin: A majority of our passengers are business travelers. Having a local option is critical to attract and maintain many businesses and industries in the region. We are the closest airport for many in parts of eastern Oklahoma and the Arkansas River Valley area. Whether travelling for business or pleasure, it is also a great convenience not to have a long drive home after landing.
Our role as an airport has not changed. Although 2020 was a different year for us, our role in the community has not changed. We continue to be an important component in growing and maintaining the region’s economy.
AMP: What’s next for Fort Smith Regional? Once we’re past the pandemic, do you foresee more flights or new destinations anytime soon?
Griffin: Going forward, our goal is to continue to grow our passenger service. Although we lost Delta service during the pandemic, American is back to offering the same number of flights as pre-pandemic times. We are also working with a national air service-consulting firm to attract either additional destinations or airlines.