Saturday, October 13, 2007

Fayetteville's Airport (Part I)

In 1998, less than ten years ago, the five commercial airlines had about 45 flights a day from Drake Field and boarded more than 272,000 passengers a year. The economic impact for Fayetteville was roughly $20 million a year. Airport revenues were about $1.73 million, with a net income of more than $600,000 per year for the city treasury. Then on September 8, 1999, US Airways Express flight 5638 lifted off for Kansas City, the last commercial flight from Drake Field. How and why did that happen to us?

It started back in 1969 when Frank Broyles asked voters to increase property taxes to build a regional airport to service his football team. Washington County residents approved it, but Benton County voters rejected the idea. So Fayetteville opened a costly new terminal building at Drake Field in 1980 and later spent another $500,000 to expand it to 25,000 square feet with restaurants and shops.

In 1990, the Walton-Tyson-Hunt dominated Northwest Arkansas Council told their loyal servant John Paul Hammerschmidt to get a bunch of federal tax dollars, and they hired Uvalde Lindsey and Scott Vanlaningham to bring the lesser locals to heel. Within two months, the Good Suit Club got the cities of Bentonville, Siloam Springs, Rogers, Springdale and Fayetteville and Benton and Washington counties to create the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport Authority, just as they now are trying to sell us a Regional Mobility Authority to pay for by-passes in Bella Vista and Springdale to serve the trucking industry.

Fayetteville Mayor Fred Hanna and the local Chamber crowd were all for the idea of dumping “substandard” Drake Field and moving business 30 miles north to shiny XNA. Only Alderman Kit Williams had the courage and good sense to fight it. "Once we say yes to the agreement not to compete, Drake Field will be forever closed" to commercial air service for our citizens, said Williams. "When you look at the economic impact of the people coming through Drake Field, sending that north to Benton County for no good reason, I'm flabbergasted there hasn't been more opposition from the Fayetteville business community."

Steve Ward, executive director of the Fayetteville Chamber of Cowbirds, said "We feel the regional airport is a step forward for Northwest Arkansas, which Fayetteville is a part of." The Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport Authority worked through the region's chambers of commerce and secured a letter in February 1997 signed by all major employers promising to use only XNA and requesting that all five airlines serving Fayetteville's Drake Field pull out and move to to Benton County. Walter Hussman Jr., publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, jumped in and assured the backing of the Little Rock Chamber for the idea to stiff Fayetteville for XNA.

On November 1, 1998, the first commercial flight took off from Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport. Less than a year later, Fayetteville’s Drake Field was an empty shell with no commercial passenger service.

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