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Is Little Rock taking off?

New nonstop service to New York is a sign of progress.

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Continental Airlines begins nonstop service from Little Rock to its Newark, N.J., hub on Friday, June 18, and while the planes are small and the flights are few, the new travel option is a significant vote of confidence in the Central Arkansas economy and possibly a prestige-builder for the city. In some ways, Little Rock National Airport has been swallowing the dust of an up-state counterpart since the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport opened in Highfill in November 1998. Little Rock National is 67 years older and boards at least twice as many passengers annually, but Northwest Regional has had a nonstop American Eagle flight to New York's LaGuardia Airport since December 2000, and added nonstop service to Los Angeles via American Eagle in August 2003. The rapid growth of that airport can be chalked up to business travel generated by the world's largest retailer: Wal-Mart, based in Bentonville. Little Rock's progress, while less dramatic, has been steadier and more diverse. Rahsaan Johnson, a spokesman for Continental, says that the airline took note of the several large corporations that have a presence in Little Rock, particularly Alltel, Dillard's, L'Oreal and Union Pacific. They also were impressed with a healthy tourism passenger base. "Little Rock is one of the largest markets in the nation that does not have nonstop service to New York," Johnson said. "There are literally dozens of people flying from there to New York every day, changing planes. That made it attractive to us." Having a nonstop flight to New York, the country's cultural and commercial capital, in turn makes Little Rock a more attractive place to others. That's according to Bert Sperling, the author of "Cities Ranked and Rated," and an expert in quality-of-life issues. "This kind of development is very significant these days," Sperling said of the flight addition. "It opens up the city to a new breed of residents who want to live somewhere other than a major metropolitan area, but who need to fly somewhere like New York on a regular basis to do business. It puts Little Rock more on the map." And it is not just business-types who will take note of Little Rock's new connectedness, according to Carol Coletta, host of the nationally syndicated public radio program "Smart City," which focuses on urban trends and strategies. Coletta recently completed a study with Portland economist Joe Cortwright called "The Young and the Restless." It included an analysis of where college-educated 25-34 year-olds are moving and what drives their decisions. "If I live in Little Rock, that is only part of the story," Coletta said. "The other part is what else can I get to quickly, and what can I do on a weekend - something interesting that expands my options. From that standpoint, the New York connection is a fabulous economic asset." The new Continental flights target Little Rock-based business travelers who want to schedule meetings in the New York area, and not the other way around. Starting June 18, a 50-seat Embraer regional jet will take off from Little Rock at 7 a.m. and touch down at Newark Liberty International Airport at 10:52 a.m. A return flight will leave Newark at 6:50 p.m. and arrive in Little Rock at 9:08 p.m. Little Rock is poised for growth in part because of its unusual service area, which includes the entire state (except Northwest Arkansas), as well as the Memphis area, the Missouri bootheel, and northern Louisiana. That is an important selling point when the airport encourages airlines to expand service. The airport is also bustling. According to Philip Launius, Little Rock National's spokesman, there has been an increase in airplane boardings every month this year over the same month in 2003, and the April jump was an especially impressive 15 percent. The Continental decision to complement its existing flights to Houston with nonstop service to New York follows other recent additions to Little Rock's flight menu. Northwest Airlines started nonstop service to its Minneapolis/St. Paul hub in March. Also, Launius says, Delta Air Lines brought in a larger regional jet to serve the Little Rock-Atlanta route because of increased demand. That Little Rock is acquiring these new connections at a time of economic fragility in the airline industry is evidence that Central Arkansas is viewed as a growing market. Most carriers have been either taking airplanes out of service or shrinking their seating capacity. There could be more to come from Continental. "We do not look at starting service into a community without looking for opportunities to grow," Johnson said. Little Rock officials hope that the growth moves in a western direction. The airline passenger travel from Little Rock toward the West Coast is very heavy, according to Launius, but currently the only option for most of those customers is to connect in Dallas. The possibility of a nonstop to the West Coast no longer seems unrealistic. That could make Little Rock an even better place to live because it would be even easier to get away.

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