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At HOT, High Fliers Meet High RollersLock Icon

7 min read

The airport code is HOT, and these days it’s both an identifier and a description: Traffic, revenue and optimism are climbing at Hot Springs Memorial Field.

Airport Director Glen Barentine was leading a tour last week when a private jet carrying racetrack and casino president Louis A. Cella roared into a cloudless cobalt sky, representing hopes for even more business.

“That’s the owner of Oaklawn Jockey Club,” Barentine said, using the old name for the top attraction in the state’s best-known tourist town. “We definitely expect Oaklawn’s expansion plans to increase our traffic.”

Barentine’s postwar-era airport is on a winning streak, and it’s gearing up as the renamed Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort plunges into a $100 million luxury hotel and gambling expansion. Casino table and card games have already begun.

The 200-room hotel and full-fledged gaming project was announced last year in the wake of Arkansas’ vote to authorize casinos at Oaklawn and Southland Gaming & Racing in West Memphis, as well as in Pine Bluff and Pope County.

“Oh, we’re excited,” said Barentine, a 10-year Air Force veteran who spent 14 years as the airport’s operations manager before taking the top job in 2016. “The planes are really stacked up in this area during big race weekends, and private pilots often come in couples and foursomes for long weekends.”

They pay to park and refuel their planes, and pour money into the local economy, said Barentine, a Texarkana native and avionics expert. “We expect the expanded casino and hotel to draw in more people and planes.”

City Manager Bill Burrough said in his 2018 State of the City report that he expects the Oaklawn expansion to bring more visitors and aid city revenue. “Based upon present-day gaming receipts, projections show an increase of $1.5 million in revenue above current levels.” Gambling brought the city about $2.15 million last year, he said.

The airport has revamped its fixed-base operator area, which caters to private aviation, and is hoping to restore the art deco terminal to its 1940s glory. “We’re working with the city finance director on finding a funding source to remodel the terminal,” Barentine said.

A $4.3 million project to provide more aircraft parking and improve intersecting taxiways is underway, a project that Burrough expects to improve operational safety.

A New, Better Airline
Commercial travel has rebounded since a new carrier, Southern Airways Express of Hernando, Mississippi, inherited the Hot Springs-Dallas route in 2017. The 3,847 commercial passengers who used the airport last year set a record.

“Southern Airways had to rebuild the trust of the flying community, following the poor performance of Seaport Airlines,” said Barentine, whose office displays memorabilia from the airport’s past — lights from a hangar, a Delta Air Lines sign from the 1950s, when it connected Hot Springs directly to Shreveport, New Orleans, Houston and Chicago. “Southern has delivered. … They have become the airline that Hot Springs expects and deserves.”

Use of the airport, which has 11 employees, began surging about four years ago and picked up appreciably with Southern’s arrival in 2017, Barentine said. The longest runway, at 6,595 feet, is large enough to accommodate “99.9% of all the people who want to come here,” he said. Lightly loaded Boeing 757s have made the flight in, including one carrying Dick Cheney, the vice president at the time.

“We have two pieces of asphalt but four approaches,” Barentine said, explaining that what looks like two runways can actually be four. “And when people land and walk into the FBO, they see the new floor, new furniture and new counter. It’s a lot different from what it was. This is the front door to the city, and it’s important to make a good first impression.”

In Barentine’s three years as airport director (salary $70,000), Memorial Field has set records in several categories, including overall revenue, which was up from $2.37 million in 2016 to $3 million last year. Fuel revenues and commercial passenger totals are also setting records.

Southern Airways offers passenger service through the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Essential Air Service program (see Southern Airways Express Delivers EAS Reliability), which provides Southern a $2.7 million annual subsidy for its Hot Springs operations. Early this year, the DOT extended that EAS contract through Feb. 28, 2021.

According to figures from the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics, 2018’s total of 3,847 commercial passengers was Memorial Field’s highest since record-keeping began in 2002. Over 17 years, passenger counts have been as low as 89 in 2009 and as high as 3,844 in 2006, the previous record.

Southern Airways makes 18 round trips a week between Hot Springs and Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport in nine-passenger Cessna 208 Caravans, single-engine turbo-prop planes with two pilots. The journey takes about an hour and 45 minutes. Southern took over Hot Springs’ service in early 2017 after the bankruptcy of Seaport Airlines of Portland, Oregon.

“Southern Airways is showing load factors in line with their forecasts, indicating the community is using and trusting the Essential Air Service in Hot Springs,” Mayor Pat McCabe wrote in an October letter to the DOT’s Office of Aviation Analysis. McCabe said city leaders unanimously favored keeping Southern Airways at the airport. “Even more impressive, there are many weeks when all seats to and from Hot Springs are 100% sold out for several days in a row.”

Reliable service and affordable fares are the key, the mayor said. “Southern Airways promised us that no one-way fare would exceed $100, and they have kept that promise.”

Free Parking, No TSA Lines
One-way fares to Dallas are $39 for early birds catching discount tickets, $74 for a standard seat and $99 for last-minute fliers. “There’s no parking fees, no TSA,” Barentine said, referring to the Transportation Security Administration checkpoints that cause long lines at major airports.

McCabe said about half of travelers flying from Hot Springs go to Dallas as their final destination, with the rest making flight connections. He petitioned for the EAS program to add flights from Hot Springs to Memphis, but that proposal got little traction in Washington.

Southern Airways is also pleased with Hot Springs. “Hot Springs to Dallas has become one of our fastest-growing routes,” said Stan Little, chairman and CEO of Southern Airways. “Not only are we seeing more local residents using the air service than ever before, but we are bringing a large number of tourists to the community.”

The city-owned airport, on 840 acres about 4 miles southwest of Hot Springs’ historic downtown, is home base for about 80 aircraft. It supports itself with revenue generated from hangar rentals, parking fees, terminal space leases and, in particular, aircraft fuel sales and services.

The field has 90 acres available for development, and some hangars, building and office space up for lease. Fuel revenue has climbed steadily, from $1.2 million in 2016 to $1.98 million last year. The field sells two kinds of fuel, JetA for jet engines and turbo-props, and low-lead gasoline for propeller-driven aircraft.

While total gallons of 100-octane low-lead aviation gas have declined from 94,000 gallons three years ago to 78,000 gallons last year, sales of jet fuel have soared from 331,613 gallons in 2016 to 432,611 last year. Both fuels were selling at near $5 a gallon in the U.S. market last week.

Fuel sales also come in two categories, Barentine said, retail and contract, and both are rising. “The ‘contract’ fuel is where a customer purchases fuel from our fuel vendor [AvFuel Corp. of Ann Arbor, Michigan] and the airport is contracted to pump the fuel for a fee,” he said. “AvFuel then pays the airport for the fuel and the pumping fee.”

He credited Southern Airways for much of the improved fuel revenue. “The reason for the large jump in 2018 — from 346,744 total gallons to 434,629 total gallons — was that our commercial services operated for a full year,” Barentine said. “But in addition to their operations, the airport had an increase in traffic.”

“We’re hoping to embrace the art deco feel of the terminal, and restore that elegant, clean look that it had in 1946.” The terminal includes Southern Airways’ counter and rental car booths belonging to Hertz and Enterprise, Barentine said. “The building itself is so strong it was designated as a nuclear shelter, with walls 12 inches thick, concrete and brick.”

Suzanne Peyton, a planner specializing in aviation for Garver LLC, the North Little Rock engineering firm, helped the city with a new airport master plan, a project funded by the Federal Aviation Administration to define priorities for the next 10 to 20 years.

“On a good, busy day, you can expect 189 operations,” Peyton told the city board in October. “An operation is a takeoff or landing. On a busy day you could need to park up to 35 aircraft on the ramp, which is a lot. That’s exciting for Hot Springs. The airport collects revenue every time people buy fuel and use their services.”

Combined takeoffs and landings have topped out above 32,000 a year, with peaks coming during the Oaklawn live racing season. “Our biggest weekend this year was the Rebel Stakes,” Barentine said. The Arkansas Derby, which closes out the racing season, usually brings the biggest crowd, but storms rained on the parade the weekend of April 13. “The jets were able to make it in, but the smaller propeller planes were grounded by the weather.”

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