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Fort Smith Regional Airport

The Fort Smith Regional Airport is a mixed-use airport located three miles southeast of Fort Smith (Sebastian County). The airport has two asphalt runways and scheduled commercial aviation to airports in Atlanta, Georgia, and Dallas–Fort Worth, Texas.

The initial ideas for an airport date back to the Depression era. In 1939, two sod runways, built on land purchased with a municipal bond authorized in 1936, opened for business. The initial decade saw improvements such as hangars (1941) and paving of the runways (1945). During expansion projects, the two runways were extended from their initial length of 3,500 feet to 8,000 feet for the longer runway and 5,000 feet for the shorter.

Construction of the control tower in 1951 permitted greater control and heavily influenced the arrival of commercial service the following year. Braniff Airways was the first airline to introduce commercial service, in 1952, as well as the first to introduce jet service, in 1965.

A new terminal building was constructed in 1959. The 1960s and 1970s saw the apex of commercial destinations served from Fort Smith. Nonstop flights to Shreveport, Louisiana, and Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Braniff were introduced. Frontier Airlines arrived in the 1970s and introduced nonstop flights to Dallas–Fort Worth, Atlanta, and Little Rock (Pulaski County). Other nonstop destinations during this time were Memphis, Tennessee; Denver, Colorado; and Wichita, Kansas.

The airport was affected by a period of consolidation among the airline industry due in large part to the events of September 11, 2001, and the so-called Great Recession that followed. Delta Air Lines and Northwest Airlines merged, and this eliminated a nonstop flight to Atlanta. This flight was restarted in 2012. American Eagle began operating nonstop flights to the Dallas–Fort Worth airport. Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport near Highfill (Benton County), completed in 1998, also began competing with the Fort Smith airport for passengers.

In 2002, a new terminal area was completed. This, in addition to the 1999 opening of a new control tower, seemed to be a positive sign for the future of the airport. In 1999, there were just over 102,000 passenger boardings. In 2015, however, there were just below 83,000. The 2016 numbers show continuation of the decline in passenger numbers. Possible reasons are changes to airline schedules and more passengers driving to larger airports for less expensive flights. This decline in commercial air travel is seen across the entire state.

In 2016, there were two commercial airlines serving airport. Delta Connection has flights to Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, and American Eagle has flights to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.

Starting in the 1950s, the airport has been used as an Air National Guard base for the 188th Tactical Fighter Group, resulting in the creation of more than 500 jobs in the region. The 188th brought numerous types of aircraft—including the F4 Phantom, F-16 (A/B/C variants), and A-10 Thunderbolt—to the airport. By 2014, the A-10 Thunderbolts had been removed from the 188th, causing a major budget shortfall for the Fort Smith Regional Airport in terms of rental fees paid by the Arkansas Air National Guard. There have been a growing number of C-130 flights from Little Rock Air Force Base, however. C-130 pilots began using the airport for training, as the airspace that had been reserved for the A-10 Thunderbolt became available. The C-130s have used the nearby Razorback Range at Fort Chaffee for maneuvers, including short take-off and landings as well as drops of soldiers and equipment from minimal heights.

For additional information:
Cook, Marty. “Frugal Fort Smith Airport Looks Ahead.” Arkansas Business, March 13–19, 2017, p. 19.

Fort Smith Regional Airport. http://fortsmithairport.com/ (accessed October 7, 2016).

Kannan, Amrit. “Aviation in Fort Smith: A Brief Historical Overview.” Journal of the Fort Smith Historical Society 39 (April 2015): 44–47.

Robert Sherwood
Georgia Military College

Last Updated 3/17/2017

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