Two years after the COVID-19 pandemic essentially halted passenger air travel, Bill & Hillary Clinton National Airport in Little Rock is seeing travelers return to the skies — though traffic is not normal yet.
But despite the pandemic, the airport never stopped moving ahead, and now it’s in the midst of big changes. It’s finishing a $60 million taxiway project and has two new fixed-base operators coming aboard. It’s planning an 88-room hotel (the first on airport property), a convenience store and fueling station. And it’s updated food and concession offerings.
But first came survival. And for Bryan Malinowski, the airport’s executive director, that meant both keeping the airport’s 160 workers employed and maintaining the airport as an economic engine during a widespread business shutdown.
“COVID hit us about mid-March of 2020, and my passenger numbers just tanked,” Malinowski said. “At the lowest point about a month later, in April, we were at 6% of our pre-pandemic traffic. I had more employees in the building than I had people getting on airplanes.”
In March of this year, passenger traffic stood at 83% of pre-pandemic numbers, he said. Nationally, in February, the latest statistics available, passenger traffic was 81% of pre-pandemic February 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
But Clinton National Airport, whose traffic is 65% to 70% leisure travel, is doing better than airports more heavily reliant on business travel, whose recovery greatly lags that of leisure. Major airlines are seeing about 100% of leisure travel returning but only 50% of business travel, Malinowski said.
That’s likely a short-term shift for business travel, he said, “as in the next two to four years. I think you have a new standard and you have a new bar, a new baseline. I think we’ll grow back. But I do believe a lot of businesses have learned how to remain competitive and let people work from home.”
Clinton National Airport, the state’s largest, is one of only nine of about 520 commercial airports in the United States that are debt free, Malinowski noted. “That has allowed us to accelerate projects, advance-fund projects, keep construction going, keep people employed,” he said.
“It wasn’t, obviously, intentional because nobody knew COVID was coming, but what better place to be during a pandemic than without a mortgage,” Malinowski said. “As a result, I didn’t have to reduce staffing at all here, and I think that’s very important, because after people got through COVID, hiring people back has been a challenge, as we all know.”
To stay competitive, the airport — LIT in aviation parlance — has raised pay for its entry-level employees twice recently. It’s now $14 an hour.
During the pandemic, “we actually tried to keep more construction going to keep as many people employed as we could,” Malinowski said. “This is going to sound a little selfish, but I do think we’re one of the strongest economic generators in the region,” he said, citing a 2019 state economic study that put the airport’s economic impact in central Arkansas at $1.6 billion a year.
Taxiway, FBOs, Hotel
The major construction effort now underway at Clinton National is the $60 million Taxiway Charlie project, which is extending and relocating much of the taxiway that runs parallel to Runway 4L-22R, one of the two main commercial runways.
Weaver-Bailey Contractors of El Paso is the contractor for the project, and Garver of North Little Rock is the engineering firm.
The goal of the project, mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration, is to make the airport’s runway and taxiway system safer. It’s expected to be completed in the summer, when Runway 4L-22R will reopen.
LIT is also getting two new fixed-based operators, or FBOs, which provide private general aviation services, including flight training, fuel sales and hangar space, and require airport approval to operate.
Last month, Signature Aviation of London, the world’s largest fixed-based operator with more than 200 locations, announced it is buying the FBO holdings of TAC Air, a division of the Truman Arnold Cos. of Texarkana, Texas. The purchase includes TAC Air’s 16 FBO locations in the United States — including at Clinton National and at airports in Texarkana, Arkansas, and Fort Smith — and a private hangar.
In December, Atlantic Aviation of Plano, Texas, the second-largest FBO in the United States, bought Lynx FBO Network of Houston, which had nine locations, including at LIT.
“Both Signature and Atlantic are first-class FBOs,” Malinowski said. “The ones we have are too, but the new ones we have coming in are kind of the big guys, kind of the Pepsi and Coke of the FBO world.”
And late last year, Clinton National reached an agreement with Conway Management Inc., an investment company in Conway focusing on hotel development, management and consulting, to open an 88-room hotel on 2.5 undeveloped acres belonging to the airport at East Roosevelt Road and Grundfest Drive. Although there are several hotels near the airport, this, under the Hampton Inn & Suites brand, would be the first on airport property.
“Business conditions are now at a point where new developments are moving forward,” Greg Garner, manager of business and properties at the airport, told the Little Rock Municipal Airport Commission’s lease and consultant selection committee Dec. 14.
Construction on the hotel, a project that must total at least $6 million, according to the lease, is expected to begin this summer, Malinowski said, with completion in about 18 months.
The 40-year lease, which received commission approval in February, starts May 1 and calls for the airport to receive the greater of the ground rent of about $54,450 a year or 5% of the hotel’s gross revenue. “As they do well, we do well,” he said of the hotel.
Clinton Airport also plans to call later this year or early next year for requests for proposals for a convenience store, fueling station and fast-food restaurant development near the hotel.
Food and Drink
During the height of the pandemic, with passenger traffic greatly reduced, HMSHost, which operates airport concessions, closed restaurants there, including the high-grossing Chick-fil-A and Starbucks locations.
HMSHost sales at Clinton Airport fell from $6.7 million in 2019 to $2 million in 2020, rising to $3.7 million in 2021.
As did most restaurants around the state and nation, HMSHost laid off employees. As passenger traffic resumed and restaurants reopened, HMSHost, again, like most restaurants, had trouble finding employees. To address these issues, the concessionaire raised pay, Malinowski said.
Now, Chick-fil-A, Burger King and Chili’s are all open, the Starbucks in the baggage claim area will undergo a $246,000 renovation and the Great American Bagel Bakery has been renovated.
As for what he learned during the pandemic, a global shakeup of the social and economic order of historic dimensions, Malinowski said, “I think what I learned is just how fragile the workforce is. It doesn’t matter who you are, airport, supermarket, hospital, it’s just how fragile your workforce is and how quick it got drawn down and how slow people were to return to the market.
“A lot of people wanted to just stay home. And in some cases, some of the government actions encouraged them to stay home, so we had to overcome some of those and let those expire so that we could attract people back to work, get them out of that different frame of mind.”