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Little Rock's flyover status grows, thanks to changes in the airline business 

Fewer flights in those friendly skies.

ON THE CONCOURSE: Though plans for an airport addition await greater use, Clinton National is working on a concourse upgrade that will include a design overhaul and add new gateways to planes and a larger bathroom.

Brian Chilson

ON THE CONCOURSE: Though plans for an airport addition await greater use, Clinton National is working on a concourse upgrade that will include a design overhaul and add new gateways to planes and a larger bathroom.

If you are of a certain age, you remember when travel by air was the sort of thing you dressed up for, in nice shoes and clothes, preferably in dark colors to reflect the sophistication of travel. Airplane food was belittled — but there was food, hot little meals on covered plates.

Now, jammed seats make the stranger next to you your Valentine, you're pitifully grateful for a Biscoff cookie and your ticket costs an arm and a leg. But at least you can fly non-stop from Little Rock to New York City, right?

Not after March 29, you can't. What about Washington, D.C.? Not since June 2014, when American Airlines dropped its flight to Reagan. St. Louis? Not since June 2013.

The Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport (previously Little Rock National) used to have non-stops to Newark (ended 2012); Destin (short-lived, ended 2011, after Vision Airlines folded); Cincinnati (2010); Cleveland, Minneapolis, Kansas City and Salt Lake City (all stopped in 2008). Southwest, freed of Wright Amendment restrictions that required it to stop in certain states before flying on, has reduced flights from Little Rock from 11 to seven, including its business-travel favored flight to Houston's Hobby. Frontier ended its flights to Denver from Little Rock last year.

In an informal survey the Times took on Facebook, the lost flight to St. Louis was a common complaint. Southwest's nonstop to St. Louis took about 55 minutes. Say you're trying to book a weekend jaunt to St. Louis today. The shortest flight (in February) a Priceline search turned up was 3 hours and 49 minutes (through Dallas), but departure was at 5:26 p.m. and arrival at 9:15 p.m., convenient if you're going after work, not so much if you're trying to get in a visit with friends. If you're willing to spend almost five hours to get to St. Louis, there are several flights that take off around 6 a.m., one flight at 10:32 a.m. and one flight at 3:30 p.m., but you could drive there for less and in the same amount of time. Forget the rest, unless you like hanging out in the Atlanta, Chicago or Houston airports.

It is small comfort that Little Rock was among 17 cities that also lost non-stop flights from Reagan, including Detroit, San Diego and Minneapolis.

It's not just Little Rock that finds itself literally in flyover country: Airline industry mergers have reduced the number of major United States carriers to just four: United, Delta, American and Southwest, accounting for 85 percent of the air travel business in the U.S. That means reduced competition and fewer flights from medium and small hubs all over the country. Flights declined 14 percent between 2007 and 2012, a study by the MIT International Center for Air Transportation found. The same study found that air carriers cut one in four flights from 35 midsized airports.

The carriers' "capacity discipline" model means packed (often oversold) planes and fewer flights to get the best return on investment. Little Rock is losing the New York nonstop because it was only 65 percent full on average, Airport Executive Director Ron Mathieu said, not enough to satisfy American Airlines' economic model.

When airlines operated on "a loyalty basis," they were slower to leave a market, Mathieu said. That cost them money. Now, putting planes where they can fill them — and where the highest fares can be charged — is paying off. Mathieu noted that American Airlines paid its stockholders a dividend for the first time in 30 years last year.

The chairman of the Clinton National Airport Commission, retired Gen. Wesley Clark, is anxious about what changes in the travel industry mean for Little Rock business. Thanks to the mergers and hub-and-spoke model, "it's difficult to get from place to place and do business" from Little Rock, Clark said. Time is money: "If you're a businessman, you don't want to have to change planes." Especially when planes don't arrive on time and connections are missed, which Clark himself experienced on a recent business trip.

"The simple truth is, the easier it is to get to a community, the easier it is to attract business," Clark said. Little Rock has "wonderful people, a great location, great amenities, but given the current airline [situation], it's much easier to locate in Dallas or even Memphis than it is in Little Rock."

Alan Sims, vice president of sales and services for the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the city's convention business has increased in the past few years. But, he said, "We have a representative in D.C. and he surveyed 2,000 of his clients, and the convenience of air travel is the first or second deciding factor for most meeting planners. It's huge, it's important. But when we compete with other cities our size we have the major airlines coming here and a lot of the regional airports don't have that."

From Little Rock, you can still fly nonstop to 13 airports and 11 cities (12 and 10 after the flight to LaGuardia is ended). Besides the dying LaGuardia flight, the 12 airports are Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International (six flights daily), Baltimore/Washington International (one flight daily except Saturday), Charlotte (N.C.) Douglas International (three daily), Dallas Love Field (3 daily); Dallas/Fort Worth International (seven daily), Denver International (two daily), Detroit Metropolitan International (one daily except Saturday), George Bush Intercontinental in Houston (six daily), McCarran International in Las Vegas (one daily), Chicago Midway International (one daily), O'Hare International in Chicago (nine daily), Phoenix Sky Harbor International (one daily) and Orlando Sanford International, Fla. (Fridays and Mondays).

Though Mathieu courts the airlines himself, Clark said it's up to the business community to rally to find ways to attract more flights here, "to make the strongest possible case to the airlines."

Commissioner Jim Dailey agrees. While the reduction in flights to and from Little Rock "is out of our control," he said, he added: "I speak for me and I think I speak for all our commissioners, we need to do everything we can to fill in the gaps, and talk to the airlines, and find out if there are any things we can do to get a little more attention to Little Rock."

When he was Little Rock mayor, Dailey said, "we actually made trips to visit corporation headquarters of each of our major carriers," to talk to them about what Little Rock had to offer, such as the Clinton Presidential Library. Dailey said he continues to push for such visits, not just from airport personnel — Mathieu is accompanied by T.J. Williams, director of air service development — but from "key business people. ... I can't imagine any airline out there that would not open the door for a meeting with Gen. Clark. If nothing else, we should work on that." Dailey said the airport's consultants have also suggested such trips. "I grew up as a salesman, by golly. Sometimes you've got to step it up a notch."

The Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce is taking that first step. Jay Chesshir, president, is putting together a travel advisory group to gather information on what routes corporations here could support.

When Hewlett-Packard decided to open an office in Conway, it worked with the airport to seek a direct flight to Los Angeles. But the company could only come up with 65 or so daily passengers, for a plane that would seat 120, so no deal was struck.

"We didn't have the data at the time to show to an airline considering that route that not only was their passenger load capacity from X (the HP employees) but also Y (others interested in a flight to L.A.). That's why we're proactively trying to gather this information," Chesshir said.

Business is done differently today, Chesshir acknowledged. Technology has changed business practices, and sometimes it's quicker and cheaper to drive if business must be done in person. (Even the Federal Aviation Administration, which used to fly in representatives on a regular basis to Little Rock, now meets with the administration by video conference, Mathieu said.) But, Chesshir said, "I really believe there are opportunities for major airlines" in Little Rock, as well as smaller airlines that may find it profitable to pick up the slack.

WIFI FOR FLYERS: The airport's executive director, Ron Mathieu, brags on the Wi-Fi speed at Clinton National, saying it's faster than at any other U.S. airport.IMAGE
  • Brian Chilson
  • WIFI FOR FLYERS: The airport's executive director, Ron Mathieu, brags on the Wi-Fi speed at Clinton National, saying it's faster than at any other U.S. airport.

***

In 2005, the Airport Commission was considering spending $183 million to build a new airport terminal. Though total "enplanements," an awkward word meaning numbers of passengers taking off from the airport, had declined from 2001 to 2003, they'd soared by nearly 7 percent in 2004.

The cost estimate for a new terminal rose to $255 million in 2006.

In 2007, the airport presented its 2020 Vision Plan for airport growth to the Little Rock City Board of Directors. At the time, American Eagle, Continental, Delta, Southwest, Northwest, United and U.S. Airways flew from Little Rock National. The total number of passengers flying out of the airport ("enplanements") was 1.267 million.

Since then, Continental has merged with United, U.S. Airways has merged with American Airlines (which operated American Eagle) and Northwest merged with Delta. With the exception of a slight rise in 2012, enplanements have declined steadily since 2006.

By 2013, the number of enplanements had dropped to 1.085 million. In 2014, the number dropped again, to 1.03 million. The forecast for this year: 978,469.

(Those figures represent paying and nonpaying passengers together. The Federal Aviation Administration counts only paying customers; it put Little Rock's enplanements in 2013, the most recent figure available, at 1.055 million, about 30,000 fewer passengers than Little Rock counted. That's not just a difference in numbers, but a difference in revenue, since the airport reaps the $4.50 passenger facility fee for paying passengers only.)

A decade ago, total operations at the airport — landings and departures of all aircraft, including military and local, were 167,800 (2005). In 2014, total operations stood at 90,440.

So airport expansion no longer seems like a good idea, at least not for the foreseeable future. The airport's website no longer displays the architectural renderings of the future airport.

The commission says it won't embark on expansion unless enplanements rise to 1.5 million a year and Congress raises the passenger facility charge to $7 per passage — the latter unlikely, Mathieu noted. In 2019, the commission will reassess.

The airport is in good financial shape, with revenues up 6 percent since 2008 and expenses only 3.7 percent, Mathieu said. Total net income in 2014 was $14.4 million, up $1.2 million from 2013, thanks in part to reimbursement from the passenger facility charge account for airport projects. Revenues come from landing fees, airline space rentals, concessions (including parking), office space, and building leases and land leases. The airport has also benefited from a change in its business model from the traditional revenue-sharing agreement the airport had with the airlines to a hybrid system that allows the airport to keep the majority of its revenue. It will be debt-free at the end of 2016.

"You can't wait to build it until you need it," Mathieu said about a new airport. "But I agree that ... with enplanements down, you need to rethink. The industry has changed."

But, as Commissioner Jesse Mason pointed out early on, the airport can't go for years without improvements to its structure. The commission has gone with a phase-in, first with a $67 million new check-in area and baggage handling system (completed in 2013) and a $20.6 million concourse redo — including new flooring, seating, jetways, a new restroom, and arrival and departure monitors — projected to be complete in the summer of 2016.

The airport also claims to have the fastest Internet service of any U.S. airport, and the new concourse will have even more access than it does now. That seems like something that would be of value more to a major hub, where there is time to fill between connecting flights, than Clinton National, but the airport is proud of it nevertheless.

THE NEW ENTRANCE: The check-in and baggage areas have been revamped, a  $67 million investment image
  • Brian Chilson
  • THE NEW ENTRANCE: The check-in and baggage areas have been revamped, a $67 million investment.

***

Ellison Poe, of Poe Travel, who arranges vacation travel, personally laments the loss of the nonstop to New York. "It's irritating. Every time I flew on that it was full. Finally we have access to the world and they take it away." But, she added, the airline squeeze doesn't affect her ability to get her clients to their destinations. You can still fly with one stop to 334 airports in the U.S. from Little Rock. ("Direct" flights, when passengers didn't have to deplane at the one stop before their destination, are nearly a thing of the past.)

For vacation travelers, the cost of the ticket may be more of a problem than the time they're spending on connections. Little Rock, the 86th busiest airport in the U.S., ranked 33rd among the top 100 airports with most expensive fares in the second quarter of 2014, according to the Department of Transportation. Among midsized airports, it ranked 18th.

Laura Atchley Mitchell, a Times Facebook reader who responded to a survey, said she flies to Atlanta every other week, paying $1,100 for the Delta nonstop. "The scheduler told me this is the most expensive one-hour flight they have." Lawyer Hank Bates also mentioned the cost of this flight. "I'm a lawyer — I fly to court hearings, depositions, mediations, etc. — events where I have to appear in person. Also fly for in-person meetings, which are very important in context where I do not have a long-term working relationship with someone. New technology is only helpful for established relationships."

But the airport, and Southwest Airlines, got lots of love in the survey, though Southwest's decision not to fly to Houston or St. Louis from Little Rock anymore got a lot of laments.

"The downside of travel from Little Rock is almost completely balanced by how easy the airport is, in my opinion," frequent traveler Susan Elder said. "I am fortunate to be able to take the whole day for travel if I need to, and I rarely plan to try and arrive only a few hours earlier if it's something important. I do realize that many folks are not that lucky."

Elder is a "big fan" of Southwest because of its flexible ticket policy that doesn't penalize for canceled flights and its "superior" baggage service.

Andrea Edwards, vice president of marketing at Staffmark, is another big fan of Clinton National. "I like being able to pull up, park in the deck, go through security, and get to the gate in 15 minutes or less. You can't do that other places."

Christopher Michael Belt, a transplant to New York from Sheridan, will miss American's La Guardia flight, which allowed him to go home to see family "every few months." Rather than cancel the flight, Belt thinks American "should have just added a $200 cost to each ticket, especially since it's corporate accounts usually paying. And it's really quite fantastic being on an empty flight. Most people flying to NYC can afford to pay more and are more annoyed by the loss of the flight."

The most-mentioned city that readers wanted nonstops to was New Orleans. Next up: Houston-Hobby, D.C., St. Louis, Miami and Los Angeles.

You can fly to St. Louis nonstop from the Jonesboro Municipal Airport (JBR) on an Air Choice propeller plane ($87 round trip). It takes a little over two hours to drive to Jonesboro, and the Air Choice flight to St. Louis is an hour and 30 minutes, for a total travel time of three-and-a-half hours, a shorter travel time than offered by flights we could find from Little Rock to St. Louis, and cheaper, too.

You can fly direct to New York City, too, from Arkansas, out of Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport (XNA). Northwest has nonstop flights to 14 cities — including four with no non-stops from Little Rock: Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Cincinnati and Newark. If you are traveling from Little Rock, however, that's around three-and-a-half hours added on your trip, and flights from XNA tend to be a bit more expensive than alternative one-stops from Little Rock.

Clinton National is conducting an online survey of business travelers, which can be accessed from its webpage under the Airlines and Flights tab. The survey asks what type of corporate travel service the respondent's company uses, what five cities the respondent's company flies most frequently to, what the company's annual travel budget is, preferred departure times, preferred arrival times, if the respondent would use the flight to LaGuardia if it could be saved, priorities in business travel, which airlines the respondent's company has a contract with and what additional nonstop is of interest to the respondent or his company and whether the respondent would be interested in serving on the travel advisory group. The link to the survey just went up in January, so responses are not definitive. The top travel priority of respondents so far is expense (the cost of fares), which echoes the airlines' priority as well.

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