HIGHFILL, Ark. - Standing behind the Avis car-rental counter, Valerie Wilson recalled 2 1/2 years of changes at Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport.
She watched as a flight from Atlanta landed and about 50 passengers made their way downstairs to not one, but two baggage carousels churning out suitcases and checked items.
Less than a year ago, a single carousel transported hundreds of pieces of luggage a day from the tarmac to the airport lobby as passengers crowded alongside the revolving metal conveyor that delivered their bags.
"They've come a long way in eight years, but there is still work that needs to be done," Wilson said.
The regional airport opened Nov. 1, 1998, after eight years of planning, design and construction. Nine years later, airlines, service facilities and concessions have increased, but employees and airport users say more improvements are needed to match potential customer demand.
On a Wednesday morning in December, ticket lines were about 10 customers deep per carrier.
Wilson and her two co-workers flipped through local restaurant menus deciding what to order for lunch. Lunch orders must be placed during the lulls between check-ins and before Wal-Mart suppliers, in town for weekly meetings with buyers, begin returning rental cars.
Former President Clinton dedicated the airport five days after it opened with Air Force One looming behind him. The Highfill facility, referred to by its airport code XNA, was only the country's third new commercialservice airport in 25 years.
Alice Walton, daughter of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, provided leadership for the airport's construction as chairman of the Northwest Arkansas Council, a private organization dedicated to improving the economic development of the region. Over time, the airport has grown from one airline flying to Dallas and Chicago to six serving 15 destinations. Flights to a 16th destination, Miami, will begin April 11.
Along with the new airlines, Wilson said additional concession space has done very well. From her station, she has a view of the baggage claim area to the coffee and snack shop near the airport entrance.
"Now people don't have to go through security to get a cup of coffee," Wilson said, adding, "It's $4 for a cup of coffee." Both passengers and people waiting to pick up loved ones use the concessions area, but Wilson still gets questions about other places to eat.
"That's the No. 1 request. `Is there anything to eat around here?'" she said. "They do need restaurants for people to eat, both in the terminal and outside the gates." Plans for restaurants are being held up for a couple reasons, said Scott Van Laningham, executive director of the airport.
The concessions space is operated by AirHost, a company with a 10-year contract set to expire in 2008. They have concessions space both outside and inside the terminal serving coffee, frozen yogurt and sandwiches. Restaurants aside from those operated by AirHost cannot come in until the contracts are renegotiated, which Van Laningham said will take place toward the end of this year. At that time, other companies will be permitted to submit proposals for concessions operation, he said.
"When we opened, we only had the one airline and there was limited interest in submitting proposals," Van Laningham said. "That will be expiring." When the airport opened, it averaged 460 passengers a day. Last December, 1,470 passengers came through the facility each day, representing a 219.6 percent increase in eight years.
Van Laningham also plans to ask the airport's board of directors to approve the design of a second-level concourse that would include restaurants. The new concourse, estimated to cost $20 million, would replace the three existing A gates with between seven and 11 new gates and jet bridges on the northeast side of the airport, Van Laningham said.
The project is under design and should be approved by the end of the year, he said.
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