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Frugal Fort Smith Airport Looks Ahead

5 min read

Director John Parker of the Fort Smith Regional Airport is proud of its well-earned reputation for getting the most out of old equipment.

There was a snow broom — a large sweeper attached to the front of a vehicle used to clear runways — that the airport used for 38 years before plans were made to replace it this year. Once, Parker called the manufacturer to ask about a replacement part for the broom, and the manufacturer couldn’t believe a model that ancient was still in use; Director of Operations Michael Griffin found the last mechanical belt for the broom on eBay.

“We maintain our equipment and historically get 30-35 years out of equipment,” Parker said.

The airport is in the market for more than a new snow broom after Parker announced in November he planned to retire at the end of March. Parker joined the airport in 1997 and was named director in 2008.

“They started with an older model,” joked Parker, 62, about his tenure being shorter than that of the snow broom.

The Fort Smith Airport Commission, a seven-member group appointed by the city of Fort Smith, was scheduled to take applications for new directors until Sunday. There is no timetable for a new director to be hired, but an interim director will be named after Parker departs.

“It’s one of those things you don’t want to have to do; he has been such an outstanding director,” said Commissioner Wayne Haver, the principal of Fort Smith Southside High School. “To replace him is going to be very, very difficult. It’s going to be difficult for us.”

“We certainly would like it to be as soon as possible. We don’t want a lot of time when we don’t have a full-fledged director.”

Budget Concerns
The airport’s frugality certainly has it benefits. For example, the 188th Fighter Wing of the Arkansas Air National Guard, which was based at the airport, changed its mission in 2014 from flying A-10 aircraft to operating remotely controlled aircraft.

It was a body blow to the Fort Smith Regional Airport, which had relied on the 188th for Aircraft Rescue & Fire Fighting (ARFF) services at the airport. The 188th also reimbursed the airport for its share of flight operations.

Those services helped rationalize the $1 annual rent the airport charged the Guard for use of 142 of the airport’s approximate 1,400 acres. When the 188th’s mission eliminated flight operations, it also stopped providing ARFF services.

Its rent has stayed at $1 — the Airport Joint Use Agreement runs through 2051 — and the Airport Commission has been unsuccessful in negotiating a new lease.

The airport now has to provide ARFF services itself and, to do so, it paid $656,000 for a new truck and equipment. It has begun work on a new fire station with a price tag of $2.5 million.

For personnel, the airport has a contract with Pro-Tech Fire Services of Green Bay, Wisconsin, for another $350,000.

Not all of the money comes out of the airport’s coffers. That’s because Fort Smith Regional, like other airports, receives grants from the federal, state and local governments. But the airport has to come up with its matching share; in the case of the new station, it has to deliver 20 percent of the final cost, 10 percent of which would be reimbursed after completion.

“The commission was very wise, and we have always been very frugal on our expenditures and as consistent as possible on our revenues,” Parker said. “We had increased our reserves as much as we could and operate as efficiently as we could. The overall deficit projected for this year in our budget is $900,000, but what that actually is driven by is a lot of construction projects. It’s not as desperate as that number may sound, but we are still in the $200,000-300,000 range.”

New Revenue
Like any business, and Parker stressed that the Fort Smith Regional Airport is a business, the economic solution to any budget is raising revenue or cutting expenses or both. The airport runs a tight ship, with 13 full-time and two part-time employees, so there is not a whole lot of fat to trim.

Parker said the airport raised its parking rates, and the airport brought in more than $435,000 in revenue that way in 2016, a 6 percent increase from 2015. The airport is also raising rents on expired or open leases for on-site hangars and adjoining property.

The airport owns much of the land around the perimeter of the airfield, some of which is leased to retail companies or hotels and the like. Additional properties are being marketed for development.

“What we make is what we can spend,” Parker said. “If we have pressures on the expense side, we have to create additional revenue to some degree. We have systematically tried to increase revenue. The FAA always tells airports to charge the rates that you have to charge to operate your airport to be as self-sufficient as possible.”

The airport has enough reserves that it can make needed purchases of equipment that Parker and his staff feel is appropriate. The airport recently spent $24,000 on a self-propelled painting machine that can paint three lines simultaneously — important because the FAA requires 6-inch yellow taxiway lines with two 6-inch black borders.

Parker realized that the expense was worth it because the airport’s old machine required three trips down the 8,000-foot taxiway.

“We viewed that paint machine as a value-add investment,” Parker said. “We’ll have that machine, like we have most of our machines, for 20 years.”

Don’t let the airport’s frugality give the impression that the facilities are less than standard. The 52,000-SF terminal, built in 2002 for $12.8 million, is pristine and modern, with the cleanest restrooms any traveler would ever want to visit. The airport is also home to 70 display cases for the Fort Smith Air Museum, of which Haver is president and co-founder.

Haver, in keeping with the airport’s penny-pinching tradition, spends every Sunday afternoon hand-dusting the display cases.

Fort Smith’s economy has not blossomed like those of central or northwest Arkansas in recent years, but the airport is set up to grow when its city does. The terminal was designed for easy expansion, as is the new ARFF station.

The airport had 173,657 passengers in 2016, up from 172,385 in 2015. Total passenger numbers are up almost 3,000 in the first two months of 2017.

“I’m very optimistic with the airport,” Haver said. “Our only big problem is the fire thing that cost us quite a bit of money and created some deficit spending for us for a while. We’re hoping to do some things that will alleviate that problem.

“Any airport is a gateway to the city, and it’s nice to have an airport that is as nice as the Fort Smith Airport.”

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