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.
"It would look a lot like the covered walkway on the northwest side," Van Laningham said.
He hopes the additional concourse will solve an existing capacity problem at the airport. Airline ticket counters are crammed at the entrance to the airport without any additional room for new airlines. The United Airlines ticket space sits on the northeast side of the airport, perpendicular to the main ticket counter. Airport officials want to entice a low-cost carrier to the facility, but need additional ticket counter space before making a pitch.
"This is what I hear at the conventions, `When you've got a ticket counter and gate space for me, let's talk,'" Van Laningham said. "I'm hoping once we decide to make a second-level concourse, we can start going to people." A cheaper airline cannot come fast enough for Brittany Maier, a Fayetteville resident who flew in from Chicago on a December afternoon. She flies two or three times a year, but would prefer to save money on airfare with a Southwest Airlines option.
"It could use a few more airlines and a few more gates," Maier said. "I have friends in Rhode Island, and I'll drive to Tulsa to get cheap airfare, but the parking is so expensive." Parking rates at the airport in Highfill recently increased as well. Fees ending in $.50 were rounded up to the nearest dollar by the board last year. Another 800 parking spaces were added in an economy lot, taking pressure off of the short-term parking lot closest to the airport entrance.
But the walk to the airport entrance from the new lot can be unpleasant in inclement weather, Wilson said.
"The walk is like four minutes long," Wilson said, saying that covered parking has now become a necessity. "There's no security out there for cars." Van Laningham said the airport authority will research ways to establish a parking deck that would serve the needs of airport users, including rentalcar space. For now, the parking deck has been put on hold, he said.
"During Christmas, we didn't fill up the economy lot," he said. "We'll get a real good feel this spring break in terms of how much it fills up." Before Christmas, flying out was relatively easy, said Bobbi Guzman, an Oregon resident visiting her sister-in-law and her three children, Scott, Beth and William.
While the children took photos of Guzman in front of the baggage carousel with their digital cameras, Guzman said her first time at the airport went smoothly. She checked in at 10:30 a.m. for an 11:30 a.m. flight.
"Because it's small, it helps," Guzman said. "And you don't have to say goodbye two hours before the flight." Her sister-in-law, Elisa Johnston of Bentonville, said she picks up husband Eric up from the airport three times a month, and the ability for the Tyson Foods Inc. employee to get off his plane and grab his bags has improved.
"When it first started, things weren't second nature for a lot of [airport] employees," Johnston said. "They've made this one real easy to get in and out." The improvements for which airport users clamor all come down to airport capacity issues, Van Laningham said. The airport receives revenue from concessions, parking fees and passenger facility charges included in ticket prices.
As fuel costs have risen, airlines have cut back on the number of daily flights and size of airplanes.
While airlines are saving money by putting more passengers on fewer planes and the region has grown, the airport's number of boarding passengers has remained flat, Van Laningham said.
Once the second-level concourse is under way, along with a 90-foot expansion of the ticket counter, Van Laningham said the airport will begin seeing greater revenue.
"There's no room to capture the growth," he said. "We're seeing that Northwest Arkansas is continuing to grow, yet our numbers are flat." Still, with all that is necessary at the airport, Maier said she'd rather fly out of the Highfill airport than any of her other options.
"I've gotten used to it," Maier said. "This is much more of an upgrade from the Fayetteville airport where I used to fly out of."
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