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Flying into Fort Smith.

Its Airport Has Plenty Of Runway, But Fort Smith Soon May Have Competition From A Regional Facility

The longest commercial runway in Arkansas is at Fort Smith.

That might come as a surprise.

What might be an even bigger surprise is that even though the Fort Smith Municipal Airport has a runway capable of handling jet aircraft, it serves only propeller-driven craft.

The 8,000-foot runway at Fort Smith is 800 feet longer than the longest runway at Little Rock Regional Airport. The Little Rock airport services major carriers such as Delta Air Lines Inc., American Airlines Inc., Trans World Airlines Inc. and United Airlines Inc.

Fort Smith, meanwhile, is served by Trans World Express, Northwest Air Link, American Eagle and Atlantic Southeast Airlines, all of which are subsidized by major airlines.

The only jets that use the Fort Smith runway are private ones and those of the 188th Tactical Fighter Group of the Arkansas Air National Guard, which is headquartered at Fort Smith.

"The jets they were flying back in 1958 needed that much runway for safe operations," says Bob Johnson, the airport's manager since August 1988.

With a $261 million regional airport planned for Benton County, Johnson views jet traffic in northwest Arkansas as possible. And he's not ruling out its coming to Fort Smith.

The Fort Smith Airport Commission presented American Airlines with a marketing study earlier this month. The study determined the size of the passenger market and the potential profitability of expanded services.

"Our object is to determine whether Fort Smith is a good feeder for a hub such as Nashville," Johnson says.

Serving The Customers

Johnson says the airport, which is funded by federal grants and user fees, is doing an adequate job of serving its part of the state. He's not sure residents of Sebastian and Crawford counties will support a Benton County facility.

"I don't think people will drive |to Benton County~ to get on the same kind of aircraft," he says. "For the most part, we're going to have to wait and see what kind of services will be offered there."

About 100,000 inbound and 100,000 outbound passengers used the Fort Smith airport in 1991. Fayetteville's Drake Field, which is served by many of the same regional airlines as Fort Smith, had 160,000 inbound and 150,000 outbound passengers in 1991, according to the airport's manager, Dale Frederick.

Those figures, combined with the fact that the U.S. airline industry lost $43.4 billion in 1991, don't add up to jet service in the near future for northwest Arkansas.

"The numbers are not there to support jumbo jet service," Johnson says.

He says the addition of jet service might force airlines to cut back on the number of flights out of northwest Arkansas.

Johnson believes residents would have to be "willing to sacrifice frequency for jet service. There has to be a market there. We would like to see improved service into and out of Fort Smith, but there's only so much you can do if your numbers are not there."
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Title Annotation:Fort Smith Municipal Airport
Author:Taylor, Tim
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Apr 27, 1992
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