HIGHFILL — Northwest Arkansas National Airport officials said Tuesday they’re getting more passenger complaints about a process they have no control over — long wait times on the ground once an aircraft lands and while it waits for ground crews to unload passengers and luggage.
“We’ve been receiving an increased number of customer complaints which means that, I assume, all of you will receive an increased number of customer complaints largely around the planes sitting on the tarmac for extended periods of time, 10, 20, 30 minutes,” said Andrew Branch, chief operating officer.
“People associate that with us.”
Branch said airport staff doesn’t handle aircraft on the ground, a service provided by airlines or third-party ground-handling companies the airlines use. Staff aren’t authorized or trained to move aircraft or to load and unload anything from them.
“We are not allowed to touch their planes,” Branch said.
The problem appears to be a shortage of ground crew personnel on the airline side, he said. With increased summer travel, he expects complaints to increase.
“If you’ve got enough crew to handle one flight, and you’ve got three flights landing, two planes are going to sit out there and wait for 30 minutes or an hour, and they’re going to blame the airport,” Branch said.
Aaron Burkes, airport CEO, said local airline managers’ hands are also often tied.
“Decisions on hiring and staffing allocations and things like that are made nationally,” Burkes said. “So, you get some frustration at the local level as well, but often times they are trying.”
Board Chairman Jim Krall of Siloam Springs urged Branch to take to social media to explain and clarify the situation. Krall said he was on an incoming flight recently that had to wait and the explanation given to passengers was vague.
Branch said staff are asking airlines to address the issue.
“Largely though, we’re powerless,” he said. “We cannot make the airlines maintain a level of service that we expect.”
Another incident this week involved a late-night, incoming flight diverting to Springfield, Mo., even though Northwest Arkansas National was still open and had a controller in the tower waiting for that particular flight to land, Branch said.
“We had a flight that was coming in at around 11:45 full of passengers,” Branch said.
The airport notified the airlines the runway would close at midnight to allow crews to do striping on the runway, Branch said.
“We were prepared to extend it, all they had to do was request an extension but it wasn’t needed, the plane showed up 15 minutes before. The runway was open. We had one of our guys in the tower watching and waiting for this flight to land so that we could start our work.”
Instead the pilot circled a couple of times and diverted to Springfield where the passengers spent the night.
Branch said the people he received complaints from were told the runway was closed.
“That’s absolutely 100% false. The runway was open and we were sitting there waiting for them to land,” Branch said. “But, we get blamed.”
Board members Mike Johnson of Fayetteville and Phil Phillips, who represents Benton County, asked whether the board should be looking into hiring an outside company specializing in baggage handling and ground crew work or even bringing the work in-house.
“Why would it not be a good thing that we try to negotiate with these major airlines that they reduce their cost to us and we employ our own crew to load and unload planes?” Phillips asked. “How much would that really cost us if we did that and then we have control of it?”
Branch said that would require hiring, and paying benefits to 100 or more additional employees and the airport probably couldn’t provide the service cheaper than the existing models.
“Obviously, they don’t pay us anything now and this would increase our costs to them considerably, and it very well could price out the Allegiant, Breeze and Frontier models,” Branch said. “We would have the same costs to everybody per passenger and it would be significant.”
Branch said a few airports do handle ground operations in-house, but neither the airlines nor the airports seem to like that arrangement.
“It’s going to be more expensive and problematic,” he said. “What it really comes down to is if airlines are going to increase their activity, they need to staff accordingly. We’ve told them that, but obviously they do what they want to do.”
The latest audit of Northwest Arkansas National Airport found no issues and said no bookkeeping adjustments are required. The airport has $49 milllion in cash and investments and revenues are up generally, according to Tim O’Donnell, chief financial officer. Parking revenue in particular is up $400,000 over what was expected in the budget.