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Airport dreams of bigger terminal

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CRAMPED QUARTERS: In current terminal.
  • CRAMPED QUARTERS: In current terminal.

Little Rock may be the largest city in the country whose airport is within five miles of downtown.

That puts airport officials in a unique position as they plan for the airport’s future, Airport Commission member Larry Lichty said. “We’ve felt for some time that there is a natural synergy between what’s happening downtown and what’s happening at the airport,” Lichty said. “We’re trying to make logical connections between the two with road and street improvements” and other forms of transportation, like the trolley or light rail.

And they’re also trying to decide the best way to handle the need for more space and modern facilities to accommodate an ever-growing number of passengers for security measures that were unimaginable when the airport was built more than 30 years ago.

A single bus route is currently the only public transportation option for traveling between downtown and the airport, and creating another one isn’t on the short list for the commission. But the growth of downtown, as both a residential and tourist center, means more of the airport’s traffic will be going to or coming from downtown.

“There are more tourists and more people traveling in and out of Little Rock today in some measure because downtown is a healthier, more vibrant place,” said Lichty. “We have a much, much greater tourist offering here than we did a few years ago. You can’t walk around downtown now without bumping into someone from out of town.”

For now, airport officials are concentrating on a $15 million repair/upgrade project at the main terminal and on finishing a $20 million acquisition of land surrounding the northern end of the general aviation runway (federal grants picked up much of the cost). The runway will be extended north to accommodate larger airplanes. The airport is buying property that’s in the path of the extension and property that meets federal guidelines for being incompatible for other uses because of the noise level.

Over the next 20 years or so, airport officials want to acquire all the property bordered by Bond Street on the west, Interstate 440 on the south and east, and the Arkansas River to the north.

And, of course, there’s the talk of a new terminal.

It’s still on the drawing board for now as airport officials try to figure out where they’d get the $254 million to pay for it. Federal grants, passenger charges, airport revenue and bonds are all possible sources, Moses said.

The new terminal would be a lot bigger — the current 34-year-old building is 30,000 square feet too small by industry standards for the 1.3 million passengers who used the airport last year. Its design is also badly outdated — just check out the line to get through security, which starts on the second floor and often goes down the escalator and into the first-floor baggage claim area. When the terminal was built, neither passengers nor baggage were screened at all.

“As our capacity continues to expand here, using our confined area is going to make the waits longer and longer,” commissioner and downtown developer Jimmy Moses said.

So a new terminal would give a lot more space to security needs, and a lot less to ticket counters, said Judy Ross, director of properties, planning and development for the airport. No one buys a ticket at the airport anymore, and more and more people check in and get their boarding passes either online or at self-serve kiosks, she said.

Modern trends are for “common use” facilities — instead of having gates and ticket counter space allotted to specific airlines, they’d all share. And with new security procedures limiting passengers’ movement in the airport, there need to be more food and retail vendors inside the gate area, Moses said.

Moses also envisions a faster version of the River Rail trolley that would run directly from downtown to the airport, possibly sharing right-of-way with automobile traffic.

“That’s not the expense of a subway or monorail system,” he said. “We’re talking about a system that’s conceivable and we could do in Little Rock.”

Meanwhile, the existing terminal is set to get a new in-line baggage system that will be able to handle more checked bags (it can be moved to a new terminal if one is built) and other repairs and upgrades, including two new security bays.

Outside the terminal, improving Bond Street into a four-lane boulevard to the airport from the Clinton Library and Heifer International area is also being looked at by the Airport Commission. Bond Street is the major north/south artery leading from Sixth Street to the airport.

The commission would like to see more manufacturing presence at the airport. Little Rock is already a major hub for the airplane fabrication and modification industry — two companies that make business jets, Raytheon and Dassault Falcon, fly their “green” aircraft into Little Rock for the final steps in the manufacturing process, like painting and installing the interior. They also are a servicing point for existing aircraft. The number one export value product coming out of Arkansas is aircraft related, Lichty said, and Dassault Falcon is the largest manufacturing facility in Little Rock.

“Our feeling is that we can attract other industry that supports those operations to this airport,” Lichty said. “My vision is to make Little Rock National Airport the world capital of business aviation fabrication and modification.”

— Jennifer Barnett Reed

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