Crystal Bridges, Walton Arts Center, Beaver Lake, the Razorback Greenway. These popular venues are all considered crown jewels in our area. The Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport can also be added to this list.
At the start of the 21st century, XNA opened its gates to new possibilities and higher horizons for the region. And how the airport got its start, is a far cry from where it is right now.
It’s a landmark, that connects our area of the state — to nearly all points of the country. Kelly Johnson who is the Executive Director at XNA says, “There’s a lot of joy and pride that goes with this place. It’s difficult to boil down to a few words, but this airport has made a tremendous change to this region.”
With a growth explosion in Northwest Arkansas looming in the late 90’s, a larger, more up to date airport was needed to replace an aging Drake Field. On November 1, 1998, Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport was born. “This was the 3rd attempt to build a regional airport here in 30 years. So as they say, ‘The 3rd time is the charm.’ says Johnson.
During the airport’s opening, charm was in abundance. The pomp and circumstance was capped off with a visit from then-President and Arkansas native, Bill Clinton.
Kelly Johnson says, “Air Force One came in and we had 8000 people come out to the airport for those ceremonies.” During his tribute to the airport, former President Clinton said, “Understand that today, if you don’t fly, you can’t compete, but if you can fly, you can soar to new heights.”
Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, who was then a US Representative, was a key figure in obtaining federal funds to build a highway, leading to the airport, said, “I remember as a young boy, actually walking through that pasture land, whenever it was nothing but cows there. It was exciting for a lot of reasons. One, you saw the potential for growth as a result of the new XNA airport, but you also saw how visionary it was.”
But as many saw something promising, there were naysayers who had a different opinion. “You had John Stossel, national reporter, come in and poke fun of it…”that airport is going to be in Highfill, population 24 and there was nothing but cows around.” said Hutchinson.
That stench of negativity, was soon the sweet smell of success. What started as one flight and two destinations, soon turned into much more. Johnson said, “We’ve had as many as 7 airlines and 19 destinations. All of the consolidations in the airline industry has made a huge difference in what’s offered here.”
And with the increase in airlines, parking had to be expanded. In the summer of 2018, the airport opened a three-story deck to accommodate the boom in business. But with all the improvement, there was at least one need that wasn’t met. That missing piece is a windy, six to seven mile stretch of two-lane road at the end of the new 412 bypass. It’s still a 10 minute drive from the end of that bypass.. but a new road would provide an even faster connection. Kelly Johnson with XNA says plans are in the works to make that happen. “We’ve formed the Airport Access Road Task Force. We’re hand and hand with our friends at the AHTD and we’re trying to figure out a way to get this done.” says Johnson.
Danny Straessle with the Arkansas Highway & Transportation Department says the Hyw. 412 bypass is just one stage. The remaining road to the airport depends solely on XNA. Straessle says, “There is already enhanced access, as far as we’re concerned to the airport. We understand that they do want to build a more direct driveway if you will. When they are ready to do it, then we’ll be ready to tie it in when the time comes.”
Road improvements will also be a plus in persuading new business interest to the natural state. “Whenever I recruit an industry to Arkansas, they’re looking at ‘Well, do you have direct flights here and there?’ The more we can have and be competitive, then the better chance we have to grow, but to also bring specific industry that want to serve this area.” says Governor Hutchinson.
If you build, grow and develop it, they will come. And if the first 20 years is an indication of how far XNA has come, the next stage will be a journey to the great beyond.