Little Rock National Airport Seeks State Funding to Reach Higher Upgrading

Officials from the state's largest airport, saying they lack the resources to ensure it remains an economic engine for the state, turned to Arkansas lawmakers Thursday in a quest for all available money to finance vital improvements and acquire more land.

They say they have good reason to seek state aid, arguing that Little Rock National Airport, Adams Field, has impact far beyond the capital city. It is one of the "major front doors" to the state and is the main commercial airport for an area that includes 2 million of the state's 2.8 million residents, they said. The airport also captures 99 percent of the air travelers in its air service area, which includes 62 of the state's 75 counties.

"If your constituents fly commercially, the chances are very good that they fly out of Little Rock National," Dr. Carl Johnson, a past chairman of the Little Rock Municipal Airport Commission, told a legislative panel Thursday.

Johnson and another commission member, Larry Lichty, addressed a joint meeting of the Senate and House Interim Committee on Agriculture, Forestry and Economic Development.

For the most part, committee members welcomed the presentation, which may have understated the airport's impact, said Rep. Travis Boyd, D-Piggott, who chaired the meeting. Boyd noted that his home county, Clay, in extreme northeast Arkansas, wasn't in Little Rock National's air service area, but he preferred Little Rock National to a closer airport, Memphis International.

"I want you to know I use the Little Rock airport quite often even though I can get to the Memphis airport quicker," said Boyd, whose hometown is 184 miles from Little Rock.

Little Rock National is more than an airport, Johnson said. It's an industry, employing more than 3,500 people at the airport or at aviation-related businesses and industries located on or near the airport.

That industrial might, which includes Dassault Falcon Jet and Raytheon Aircraft Co. plants, amounts to an economic impact of $300 million annually, Johnson said.

Dassault and Raytheon, which finish corporate aircraft the companies manufacture, are key businesses that have made aerospace equipment the state's top export, totaling $829.97 million in 2005, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

"So the airport is important to the state, not only for the commercial air service it offers, but for the jobs that have been created and those that will be created in the future," Johnson said in his prepared remarks.

The airport's aging main terminal needs to be upgraded at a cost of $115 million. It's at capacity, with 2.5 million passengers going through its doors each year.

The airport has millions more dollars in capital needs if it is to continue to help the state economically, according to Johnson and Lichty.

Little Rock National has embarked on an aggressive land acquisition program not only to address short-term needs but also to give the airport the ability to "bank" large tracts of land for future industrial development.

Having that land available would allow state, county and local officials to respond more quickly when a company such as Boeing Co. considers locating a new plant. When the aviation manufacturing giant was considering a new site for a plant several years ago, it liked Little Rock National's access to interstate, port and rail but looked elsewhere because no land was immediately available, Johnson said.

"They needed the land now, not in three years," Johnson said.

The airport's capital needs far outstrip what it expects to receive from its general revenue, federal aid and airline subsidies, especially since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Johnson said. Federal aviation money is being concentrated at the biggest airports while some airlines are in bankruptcy, he said.

"The airport has never come to the state [for help before]," Johnson said. "But as of 2001, things changed."

At least one lawmaker suggested that if the airport receives state money, the city might have to relinquish some control of the airport. Little Rock owns the airport. It is administered by the Little Rock Municipal Airport Commission, whose seven members are appointed by the city Board of Directors.

"For the 62 counties, legislators would be willing" to help the airport, said Sen. Jimmy Jeffress, D-Crossett. "If that ever happens, you need to add commissioners from somewhere else" in the state.

Lichty, a former member of the city Board of Directors, all but told lawmakers that the airport will need state help.

"To do nothing to enhance this facility" would result in "dire economic consequences to this state and this city," he said.

Johnson declined to say after the meeting how much money the airport will seek from the state, but he said the request likely will be for a comprehensive airport improvement plan, not just for the terminal upgrade.

The next regular session of the Legislature begins in January, which Johnson said would give airport officials enough time to develop a request.

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