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Aeromancy 

Planning for a new airport terminal means peering into the murky future of flight.

TAKKING FLIGHT: Little Rock National Airport is getting a new terminal.
  • TAKKING FLIGHT: Little Rock National Airport is getting a new terminal.

In ancient times, men tried to foresee the future by looking at the movement of birds. Decode the way they rose and fell on the wind, the Greeks thought, and one could get a glimpse into the mind of the Gods.  

Out at the Little Rock National Airport these days, they're still doing something akin to that. Instead of trying anything as simple as seeing into the fates of men, however, the Little Rock Airport Commission and a group of paid consultants are after a peek into much cloudier waters: the future of the notoriously unpredictable airline industry.  Their goal: update the Little Rock National Airport's aging terminal with an eye toward where Little Rock's travel demands will be five, 10, or even 20 years hence.

Sound daunting? Add to that skyrocketing fuel costs that might never come down; airlines merging, going belly up, or jumping ship on smaller airports like Little Rock (Frontier, one of eight carriers that had served Little Rock, pulled out of the market as of June 1, and the potential for international flights from Latin American carriers Aeromexico and Mexicana seems to have evaporated as well); security concerns we could have only dreamed of 10 years ago, and a potential price tag that could head well into the $100 million range before the project is finished, and it's easy to start thinking those old fellas in togas, squinting at their finches and wrens, had it good.

Whatever the case, say airport officials, Little Rock can't afford to wait for calmer seas. When the dust clears, they insist, the city will have a shining new doorstep (or at least one so vastly refurbished and expanded that you'll never recognize it) to greet the travelers of the new millennium.

 

If an airport is like a pump — pulling in arrivals, filtering them through security and baggage claim, gushing out departures — the terminal and gate complex at Little Rock National Airport long ago became too small for its fish bowl.  Completed in 1972, the current terminal features only 12 gates; six of them staggered along a narrow concourse and the rest huddled around a circular rotunda at the end. Waiting areas at the gates are notoriously cramped. The truck-sized baggage X-ray machines squat in the lobby, next to the ticketing counters — which almost everyone involved agrees might be the most unattractive place possible to situate the noisy, grunt-work contraptions that scan luggage. Security — 1972 was long before anybody had ever heard of shoe bombs, remember — is confined to the throat of the corridor that leads to the gates, creating a textbook bottleneck. On some days, the line for security screening snakes through the terminal, past airport shops and restaurants, and down the escalator to the lobby.

One doesn‘t have to have a degree in engineering to know that almost all the major problems at the Little Rock National Airport terminal can be traced back to volume. Today, arrivals and departures at the airport are easily double what the terminal was designed to handle when new. According to figures collected by Jacobs Consultancy — the Boston-based firm hired to help make suggestions for what an expanded and refurbished terminal should look like — in 2008, there were an average of just over 8,000 arrivals and departures daily at the airport. By 2028, Jacobs projects, that figure will have risen to almost 13,000 passengers a day.

Jimmy Moses is the chair of the Little Rock Airport Commission's three-person Terminal Task Force. He admits that trying to plan for a new terminal when the airline industry is virtually seasick from recent financial ups and downs is “a very complex puzzle.”

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