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Aeromancy 

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.”

“It makes it very difficult,” Moses said. “We're talking about long-term capital investment of millions and millions of dollars, and we're trying to work with airlines who are one week announcing non-stop service to one city and the next week terminating service to two others. It makes it very confusing and difficult to plan.”

The Airport Commission started looking at expanding the terminal two and a half years ago, and Moses said that there has been some erroneous reporting about the terminal project in the past.

“We're not talking about do we build a new terminal or not build a new terminal,” Moses said. “We're talking about, how do we create a better facility and do it in phases?”  The current plan is a phased approach that will take the old structure down to the bones, piece by piece, and build back something totally new.

“Getting it done could take three, five, seven or even 10 years, depending,” he said. “But we can't just sit still when we have to enhance our baggage claim or our screening area, or provide more ticket counters. We're not in the position where we can just sit around and wait on those things.”

At the moment, Moses said, things are in the very early planning stages. Back in May, Jacobs Consultancy came to town and presented four possible layouts for a new terminal. The Airport Commission has yet to take up discussions on those possibilities as of this writing. While those four options have some major differences — whether or not to include a station that would serve as the terminus for a proposed 3.4-mile track extension to bring River Rail streetcars to the airport, for instance — there are enough similarities that one can see what amounts to a rough outline of the future.

In all the potential refits, every major area of the terminal will get a vast space upgrade, from a multi-lane security checkpoint to almost doubling the width of the concourse. Baggage X-ray and inspection machines will be moved to a more out-of-the way area, opening up the lobby and ticket counters. In three of the proposed plans, the rotunda at the end of the concourse is replaced with a more modern “hammerhead” configuration that can accommodate more planes. All the proposals would up the number of gates to 16 or 17.  

Ronald Mathieu is the interim director of the Little Rock National Airport. He said Jacobs Consultancy has been vital in helping the commission sort through some of the more difficult issues involved in terminal renovation.

“What they've come back and said, which shouldn't be a surprise to anyone, is that given the state of volatility of the airline industry … the far more reasoned approach is to say, well, how do we adjust the facilities at the airport for the future and not spend a lump sum at one time?”  The answer, Mathieu said, is the phased approach, in which areas of the terminal are closed, refurbished and expanded, and then brought back online. Even with the current volatility in the airline business, Mathieu said, one thing is for sure: Planes will fly in and out of Little Rock National Airport in the future, and the terminal has to be ready for that.

“The reality that we're facing today is the incredibly high cost of fuel,” he said. “I don't believe for a moment that the federal government will allow all the airlines to go out of business and put everybody in cars. I think the airlines are going to exercise some self-help with the consolidation and mergers, but at the end of the day, if it really tends to get worse … I think you're going to see the government step in and take some steps to protect their air transportation system.”    

 

Whichever of Jacobs' recommendations the commission decides to take to heart, Jimmy Moses said renovation and expansion will start where the need is greatest: enlarging the passenger screening area and getting the X-ray and baggage inspection equipment out of the ticketing lobby. Even before the recommendations from Jacobs came in, the commission had secured $16 million to accomplish those goals.

“Those are projects that we already have dollars allocated [for] through our TSA funds and had planned to spend money on this year and next,” Moses said. “I think that we'll probably be looking at a refinement of our early plans and possibly even expanding what we do initially over our original thoughts of a year and a half ago.”

Tom Schueck is a member of the Terminal Task Force. While he said the terminal makes a good impression for the city now – bright, clean and well appointed — it's just too small. When it comes to expanding, he said, he's all about space.

“The more space you can give me, the better,” Schueck said. “Up there where security is, you go up that escalator and it's all jammed up. We want to get a lot more space in that area, and it's going to be kind of combined with the inline baggage [systems] in the remodel. We're trying to make up our minds on what to do there.”

Schueck's desire for space extends to the size of the planes he'd like to see flying out of Little Rock in the future. He said that the Airport Commission is always negotiating with the airlines to fly bigger airplanes into Little Rock, as opposed to the smaller turboprops and regional jets. Currently, regional jets and turboprops make up around 70 percent of the traffic in and out of the airport.

“We could probably sell more tickets if we had bigger airplanes,” Schueck said. “But getting the airlines to listen — you have to sell Little Rock to the airlines. You'd think they'd want to keep us happy, but it's the other way around.”

 

So, what's it all going to cost, both in money and inconvenience for travelers? The easiest answer for now is, nobody really knows. All agree, however, that there will be some degree of inconvenience for travelers during the building phase. While that could have been avoided by building a new terminal elsewhere and keeping the old one online until a changeover,  Airport Commissioner Bob East said financial factors made that impossible.
“With a new terminal,” East said, “you build it, start using it, and then tear down the other one. But we're talking $250, $300 million dollars.” A lump sum like that makes a phased approach, with its much smaller checks to write over 10 years, preferable.

While Moses said the price tag for the terminal expansion could “run well upward of  $100 million,” he stressed that the commission likely won't know about a final price tag until all proposals are in and the commission talks to the groups that will be involved in the decision making. Moses said he wishes the airport could simply approach local taxpayers to bankroll the bulk of the cost, but added, “We're not contemplating any sort of tax or overall request from the public to fund anything here. I'd be all for it, but I think one thing that Central Arkansas and Arkansas in general is a little short sighted on is public transit and how we fund that for the good of the state.”

Instead, Moses said, funding will most likely come from more “traditional sources,” such as the FAA, possibly upping the $4.50 per passenger TSA charge the airport collects, or “some novel ways to renegotiate airline agreements.”

Airport Commissioner Virgil Miller, a banker at Metropolitan Bank, agrees that going to the public with a hand out would be the wrong way to accomplish the airport's goals. “The first thought is always, ‘Go to the people,' ” Miller said. “But I don't think you can afford to have that kind of thinking. We need to be creative and out of the box. I think we'll have to take a look at options we haven't discussed before.”

Like his fellow commissioners, Miller said that it's probably inevitable that airport travelers will be subject to some amount of inconvenience during the reconstruction process. The payoff will be quicker trips through the airport in the future. “You can't have an omelet without cracking some eggs,” Miller said. “I think it goes without saying that when we change up, there's going to be some inconvenience. But I think most people are going to understand and be patient. They understand that you have to put up with certain things to get your end goal.”          

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