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story.lead_photo.caption A business jet is towed from a hangar last week at North Little Rock Municipal Airport. - Photo by John Sykes Jr.

Corporate executives in North Little Rock want to use the city airport, but increasingly, their far-flung business partners who fly in for meetings prefer landing elsewhere.

And if nothing changes, local plane owners might have to take their corporate aircraft elsewhere, too.

Executives such as Steve Williams, founder and head of Maverick Transportation LLC, a North Little Rock trucking company, say they don't mean that as a threat.

"It's really simply about, "Are you in the game or are you not?," Williams said at a briefing for City Council members last week. "This weekend I have people flying in from Salem, Ore., Boston, Phoenix, a whole bunch of places, and they're not landing here. They're all going to be across the river."

Which is why North Little Rock Mayor Joe Smith wants to embark on an estimated $5 million upgrade at the airport, the city's front door to the world.

Williams said his corporate headquarters and driver training center, housed in a state-of-the-art campus off Interstate 40 in North Little Rock, makes a statement about the company.

Josh Holmes, a line service technician with the aviation center at the North Little Rock airport, prepares a jet for flight.

So customers from around the nation are surprised to land at North Little Rock Municipal Airport to find amenities wanting both for the corporate executives and for their pilots. Williams said he continues to base his aircraft at the airport, nonetheless.

"It's tremendously convenient for us, and it's convenient for people that I'm bringing in here as customers," he said. "But this part of my choosing to be here is not consistent with what they see in everything else that I do. They know. It stands out, and not in a good way."

Airport officials say the airport hangars and buildings were never designed or built with a modern general aviation service center, known in airport circles as a fixed based operator, in mind.

The airport opened in 1960 and for years served a small mix of recreational and business pilots. It has four runways that accommodate 56,000 takeoffs and landings annually. Hangars and buildings were repurposed over the years to accommodate the bigger corporate jets that began being used by businesses.

They include Maverick; Bruce Oakley Inc., a diversified commodity, trading and transportation company; Home BancShares, the holding company for Centennial Bank and the fourth-largest bank in the state; and the Ashley Group, a commercial development company that owns and manages malls, shopping centers and other commercial real estate in Arkansas and two other states.

Oakley's clients include international customers, said Dennis Oakley, the president of Bruce Oakley and son of the founder.

"We've had people from Moscow, South America, all over the place," he said.

Better facilities and more hangars would attract more corporate jets, which in turn would mean more leases and more fuel sales, according to Tommy Murchinson, who owns the service center at the airport, the North Little Rock Jet Center, which leases a 36,000-square-foot hangar from the airport.

About a dozen corporate jets are based at the center, he said. In the past year, he has had what he called 10 serious inquiries, but he said he has no room.

The airport also lacks the amenities of a modern aviation service center, especially a lounge for pilots, a planning office for them and space for clients to meet with company executives at the airport, which is common way for business to be conducted.

The plans that Smith, the mayor, has formulated include a new aviation service center and new hangars, some to replace hangars that date to the 1940s and were acquired used in the 1960s. A restaurant also is envisioned.

He said it is time for the city to help companies to retain business and expand their businesses by improving the airport.

"These guys are doing a tremendous job with their companies right here in North Little Rock and I just think now's the time with the financial situation the city's in, we can afford to build something out here that's special," he said at a briefing he held last week for City Council members.

"We'll build a nice hangar, we'll build a nice [aviation service center]," he said. "I hope that you will walk over there and see Tommy's North Little Rock Jet Center ... . You're going to go, 'It's awful.' If you don't do anything else, make sure you walk in over there and see where these guys are bringing their clients and employees into our city.

"You only have one chance to make a first impression, like Steve said. If they're investing their money here, I think we can invest our money here, too."

Smith said he wants the council to take steps toward a bond issue totaling an estimated $16 million next year, primarily to help pay for the construction of a police and courts building. It also includes funds for now new cabins at Burns Park as well as the airport improvements.

Council approval will allow for architects to be retained to begin plans and get a better idea of the cost.

The airport has done what it could, largely with the help of federal and state grants. Since 2011, it has spent nearly $4.5 million on improvements, primarily to the airport runways. Most notably, it completed a nearly $2.5 million project to overhaul the runway lighting system.

The grants on which the airport has relied to make improvements can only go toward runway and taxiway improvements and maintenance projects and not economic development projects, according to Clay Rogers, the airport director.

Amenities can go a long way in a pilot's decision on where to land, he said.

"That's a big reason why small airports will have a restaurant," Rogers said. "It's a draw for those pilots who are the ones who are making the plans where to land and if they're going to be the ones hanging out for three hours., they want something that's more comfortable, they want something where they can get a bite to eat."

Council member Debi Ross, who attended the briefing, said she knew people who owned aircraft and moved because the airport wasn't conveniently located.

"They stopped flying in here," she said. "And all of them say, 'location, location, location.' They wanted to be the closest to the businesses they were going to. The travel time."

At Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport/Adams Field, aircraft operate in airspace and on the ground at the direction of air traffic controllers to help manage the mix of business and commercial aviation aircraft that use the airport, the state's largest.

North Little Rock's airport, on the other hand, lacks a control tower, which makes it easier to land and take off. And the time on the ground before take-off and after landing also is minimal, he said.

That time in the air and on the ground costs money on business jets, which typically have two engines. Fuel is the largest variable cost of operating a private jet, according to the Sherpa Report Guide to Private Aviation. Light jets, common at North Little Rock, can consume 175 gallons an hour.

"They're spending a lot of money for every minute they're in the air," said Jerry Chism, director of the Arkansas Department of Aeronautics. "If it's my corporate jet ... I know I can get in here and land, and when I leave, I can get out of here much faster, too," he said. "He's not going to land in Conway to drive to Little Rock. He could, but he's going to land somewhere nearby but if it's an airport he can get in and out of and reduce the time in the air, that's money saved."

SundayMonday Business on 12/02/2018

Print Headline: Restaurant, new hangars part of North Little Rock mayor’s $5M vision for airport

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