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Ready for takeoff: Little Rock Regional Airport has a new runway, but will it ever get a hub?

James Rodgers, manager of the Little Rock Regional Airport, ticks off the airlines that have ceased operations or merged with other companies in recent months.

"Let's see," he says. "Eastern is no more. Pan Am is no more ..."

Among those in bankruptcy are TWA Inc., Continental Airlines Inc. and America West Airlines Inc.

The recent fare war may have sugarcoated the plight of the airlines for the consumer. But Rodgers is aware of the trying times and the effect they could have on Little Rock's airport.

At one time, there was talk that Little Rock would be able to attract a hub.

That talk has quieted.

"Given the number of carriers that exist today and the difficulty that some are experiencing, certainly it has us concerned," Rodgers says. "... Our options are decreasing."

When Little Rock Airport Commission members, politicians and business leaders dedicated a new runway last August, confidence was high. The goal was to attract a regional hub and the hundreds of jobs such an operation would bring to Little Rock.

The runway will double the airport's flight capacity by allowing simultaneous takeoffs and landings. It cost $50 million to build and stretches 7,200 feet.

All that is left to make the runway fully operational are the placement of navigational aids such as an approach lighting system and an instrument landing system.

Memphis-NW Connection

With the completion of a second runway, plans are to reconstruct the original runway, lengthen it and add landing aids.

"It will allow us to operate during any type of weather," Rodgers says. "... We will be making ourselves more attractive as it relates to becoming a hub."

Yet that's not necessarily the goal, according to the Airport Commission's chairman, Les Hollingsworth.

Hollingsworth points out that since Memphis International Airport became a hub for Northwest Airlines Inc. a decade ago, it has caused some airlines to take their services elsewhere.

According to the most recent activity report from the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority, Northwest had 110 scheduled flights in and out of Memphis.

Delta Air Lines Inc. was next with 20.

American Airlines Inc. had seven.

"The airport is on the threshold of attracting a lot of dynamic companies such as airplane manufacturing and maintenance companies," Hollingsworth says of Little Rock. "If we can attract those companies, we can create jobs.

"There are several viewpoints as to whether a hub is what we want. A maintenance hub might be better for us. Other airport-related industries ... may be what we need."

Robert Wilson, a member of the commission, would welcome a hub, however.

"We're moving in the right direction," he says. "I don't think we have a particular airline company ready to start working with us, but we're providing the right facilities.

"We have two runways that are available for traffic. That is looking to the future."

Who Flies Little Rock?

More than 87,000 passengers boarded planes at Little Rock Regional Airport in May. That was an increase of 6,000 passengers from the same month in 1989.

More than 3,000 landings occurred, compared with 2,800 in the same month three years ago.

Of the major airlines, Southwest Airlines Co. is the busiest at Little Rock. During May, about 45,000 passengers boarded and deplaned Southwest flights at Little Rock Regional Airport. Almost 27 percent of the passengers who use the airport fly Southwest.

There once was talk of Southwest choosing Little Rock as a hub. Rodgers thinks Southwest would be a natural.

Southwest officials aren't keen on that idea.

"They don't hub anywhere," says Robert Glennon, an attorney and lobbyist for Southwest.

The Dallas-based company has been an industry success story since its initial flight on June 18, 1971. With a net income of $47.1 million in 1990, Southwest was one of two major airlines to report a profit.

Under the leadership of its chairman and chief executive officer, Herbert Kelleher, Southwest has expanded its operations to 32 cities in 14 states. It now serves cities as far away as Oakland, Calif.

Its bread and butter is Texas, though.

Southwest officials are worried about an amendment to a bill in Congress that would remove the cap on tax-exempt bonds issued to finance high-speed rail carriers known as "bullet trains."

The amendment also has Little Rock airport officials worried, according to Airport Commission member John Flake.

Why?

The most likely high-speed rail project in the country would link San Antonio, Austin, Dallas and Houston. That's Southwest Airlines country.

"A bullet train would severely undermine that market," Glennon says. "... If you're not strong at home, you can't be strong in Arkansas, Oklahoma and other places. You would have to put more resources into the Texas operations."

The flip side of the legislation, according to staffers for Sen. Steve Symms, R-Idaho, is that high-speed rail offers a safe, energy-efficient and environmentally sound way to move people between cities.

Symms, who is sponsoring the measure, points out that other transportation projects are not subject to caps on tax-exempt bonds.

Southwest's direct expenditures in Little Rock are about $3 million annually. It has 40 employees in Arkansas.

Northwest Competition

The possibility of a regional airport in northwest Arkansas also looms.

There are those who contend it would be another blow to central Arkansas. But others point out that Memphis, Tenn., already is closer for thousands of east Arkansas residents and Tulsa, Okla., is closer than Little Rock for those in northwest Arkansas.

Wilson does not view a northwest Arkansas regional airport as a competitor.

"It will help us," he says. "It will benefit the whole state. Anything that benefits the state will help us."

Hollingsworth points out that Little Rock has an established niche. It serves about two-thirds of the state's population. A number of major airlines serve the capital city.

"We are truly a regional airport," he says.

The new runway is an example of the Airport Commission's determination to become even more competitive. A plan to extend the older runway is another.

As for a hub, Rodgers does not rule it out. But considering the upheaval in the airline industry, officials at Little Rock Regional Airport aren't holding their breath.
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No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Special Report: Transportation in Arkansas
Author:Webb, Kane
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Jun 22, 1992
Words:1026
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