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Commercial passenger flights a distant goal for new airport

Posted: July 16, 2014 - 3:05pm

Will someone be able to book a passenger flight out of the new Cantrell Field airport in the Lollie Bottoms? Maybe someday, Airport Manager Josh Zylks said on Wednesday, but that’s not in the cards now. 

The new airport will open on Sept. 1 with a 5,500-foot concrete runway thick enough to handle aircraft up to 100,000 pounds. There are plans to extend the runway eventually out to 7,000 feet, which is long enough to handle “commuter” jets carrying around 50 people. A 7,000-foot runway would also be the third-longest in Central Arkansas after Little Rock’s Adams Field and the Jacksonville Air Force Base. 

The problem with commercial passenger flight isn’t at Conway’s new airport, Zylks said, but rather with Adams Field in Little Rock. From a business standpoint, there’s not enough demand for passenger service out of Conway with Little Rock’s airport not much more than half an hour away (depending on traffic). 

Before taking the job in Conway, Zylks managed the South Arkansas Regional Airport in El Dorado, where passenger flights to Dallas, Memphis and Hot Springs were available via SeaPort Airlines’ fleet of single-turboprop Cessna Caravans.

But SeaPort Airlines’ operation in El Dorado is viable mostly because of Federal subsidies that wouldn’t be available in Conway. The federal Department of Transportation’s Essential Air Services subsidy pays most of the cost of a passenger’s ticket and an airline’s operating expenses for airlines operating from isolated, rural areas and flying to regional hub airports, Zylks said. However, Conway’s relative nearness to Memphis and a current moratorium on adding new eligible airports makes it unlikely that passenger air travel out of Conway would be subsidized.

That might change in a future with a million-person Little Rock-North Little Rock-Conway Metropolitan Area though, Zylks said, but the plan for the new airport now will be to make it the premier private and corporate aviation airport in Central Arkansas, where pilots can quickly and safely refuel and get back in the air without waiting on a busy taxiway or relax in a “first-class” terminal while their clients go about their business in town. 

Zylks was speaking at a Kiwanis Club meeting. 

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