The prospects are looking brighter for a service and completion center for corporate jets that went dark five years ago at the Bill & Hillary Clinton National Airport.
The former Hawker Beechcraft complex is poised to see more activity with Envoy Air’s expanding fleet of E175 passenger jets. More 76-seat Embraer 175s mean more service work and more manpower to keep the Envoy aircraft flying.
For now, the subsidiary of American Airlines Group conducts operations from 47,626 SF of hangar and office space in Little Rock.
“We’re starting to mature there, and we want to grow the operation,” said Jay Murray, vice president of maintenance for Envoy Air. “We’ve been really pleased with the facility.” Envoy employees perform nose-to-tail preventive maintenance checks covering everything from lightbulbs to tires and engines.
The fuselage is about the only part of E175s that won’t be serviced in Little Rock once the operation is fully staffed this year.
Eighteen months since its announced arrival, the Envoy Air project continues ramping up from its current headcount of 48 employees.
“Our commitment was 50-60” within five years of starting, Murray said. “By summer, we should have 64 people.” The 16 new hires will push the tally of aviation mechanics and technicians to 56. For now, the maintenance facility workforce consists of 40 service personnel supported by an eight-member office-inventory staff.
The Little Rock crew typically services three aircraft daily 24/7 with most of the heavy work accomplished overnight. Envoy will start a cabin interior check line next month on a reduced scale that will be in full swing by the end of year.
“I expect we will have that open before then,” Murray said. “We’re not having a difficult time hiring in Little Rock.” Ron Mathieu, executive director of the Little Rock airport, is optimistic that hosting an expansion of Envoy Air is in the future.
“There are no guarantees in this life, but more than likely, we will because we’re one of their new facilities,” Mathieu said.
Fleet expansions could benefit the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport, where Envoy Air also operates an E175 service center.
More than $466,000 was invested to modify Envoy Air’s Little Rock hangar to handle the taller E175 tail section. The airport invested an additional $395,000 for similar alterations to adjoining hangar space with an eye toward future Envoy Air growth.
Those investments are part of $1.2 million the airport spent to convert the Hawker Beechcraft complex from a single user to multi-tenants.
“Little Rock did the right thing there,” Murray said. “All airports should be following suit to make their facilities more accommodating for airlines to come in.” The Envoy lease produces $253,000 annually for the Little Rock airport.
Another part of the former Hawker Beechcraft complex is generating revenue for the airport, too. The recent arrival of Lynx FBO Network will keep annual payments of $214,000 flowing to the airport and maintain a menu of general aviation service providers.
The fledgling fixed-base operator chain replaced Fly Arkansas this month in a buyout of its Little Rock operations.
Lynx assumed the Fly Arkansas lease on 55,000 SF of space vacated by Hawker Beechcraft. That 10-year agreement expires in 2025.
“We’ve just about recovered the revenue we lost from Hawker,” Mathieu said.
The airport gained ownership of the entire 406,185-SF build-out and maintenance facility in the aftermath of the company’s bankruptcy.
Hawker Beechcraft Inc. of Wichita, Kansas, gave up its ownership stake in the hangar-office complex to the airport in exchange for the termination of its lease on airport property.
Before entering bankruptcy on May 3, 2012, the company paid $587,626 annually to the airport as part of an agreement that included 11.5 acres of ramp space. The lease was set to expire in 2037.
The Chapter 11 filing began a six-month corporate tailspin for the Little Rock operation, where a staff of 450 produced finishing work on Hawker 4000 business jets. It ended in an irretrievable dive for the facility and the loss of the third-largest aerospace company in the state by employee count.
In August 2012, the wind-down of Hawker Beechcraft’s Little Rock operation began with the announced layoff of 170 workers amid talks of potential sales and mergers. By November of that year, staff reductions escalated into the closing of the Little Rock services facility among other company locations.
Revenue-wise, the Little Rock airport has held its own since the loss of Hawker Beechcraft over five years ago. Job-wise, it still has some ground to make up.
A $60 million, 250,000-SF expansion of Dassault Falcon Jet’s Little Rock complex, announced in 2014 and completed in 2015, created new jobs to help mitigate the loss of Hawker Beechcraft.
The growth at Dassault and the operations at Envoy Air and Lynx-Fly Arkansas represent less than half the 450 jobs eliminated in Little Rock by Hawker Beechcraft.
Landing Envoy Air was a recruiting coup that is paying dividends beyond new jobs and potential new jobs.
“They didn’t just pick Little Rock out of a hat,” Mathieu said. “There was a competition.” The yearlong, back-and-forth negotiations included pitching woo at the 2016 Farn-borough International Airshow in England with the aid of gubernatorial and Arkansas Economic Development Commission involvement.
The Envoy Air maintenance facility is helping bring additional flights to Little Rock, according to Mathieu. “Anytime you can bring in more aircraft, that’s a good thing,” he said.
Envoy service from Little Rock to Reagan National Airport in Washington starts April 3. The addition is one of three new flights coming online within a 60-day window in Little Rock, something of a record for the airport.
Frontier Airlines began service to Denver on March 1, and Via Airlines begins service to Austin, Texas, on April 29.
Expanding flight offerings is a steadfast, front-burner item at the Little Rock airport. “We’re constantly talking with folks, and it’s a long process,” Mathieu said.
The airport is in the process of losing a non-aviation tenant less than two years into a five-year lease.
Cantrell Drug Co. of Little Rock entered bankruptcy in November, which suspended monthly rents of $30,000 on the 42,800-SF former Southwest Airlines call center. The financial problems of the pharmacy compounding company are heading toward a court-sanctioned termination of the rental agreement that began February 2016.
“They’ve indicated they will reject the lease” as part of the company’s bankruptcy reorganization, Mathieu said.
Efforts to facilitate the development of a hotel on airport property are in a holding pattern. A request for proposals didn’t generate much interest.
“We put out an RFP about two years ago,” Mathieu said. “We had one response.” That proposal morphed into an idea the airport was not interested in. “They wanted us to come in as an equity partner,” Mathieu said. “We’re not in the business of competing against private business. We have no appetite to do that.” The airport is nearing completion of a $26 million concourse overhaul.
“We’re now working on the restaurant and retail component,” said Shane Carter, director of public affairs and governmental relations for Clinton National. “We’re awaiting construction to start on the Chili’s.” This new eatery will take over space occupied by Quizno’s, Whole Hog and Burger King. A combo of Chick-fil-A and Burger King is planned to replace the Ouachita Landing restaurant.
The Hudson Group is building a new retail store next to Gate 3 and will be renovating its current store near Gate 6. The relocation of Gates 1 and 3 opened up space for the new store.
Joining the airport’s fast WiFi network as a bragging point is the installation of 806 new seats throughout the concourse, each with double armrests and its own outlet to power electronic devices. “To the best of our knowledge, we’re the only airport with that,” Carter said.
More improvements in motion at the debt-free airport include replacing engineered-materials arresting systems for aircraft overshooting Runway 22R, $4.5 million, and completion of shoulder pavement and edge lights on Runway 4R-22L, $3 million.