Posted on January 25, 2019
By Michael Shine
Southern Airways Express started offering commercial flights to and from El Dorado in 2017, with the first flight landing that May. Since then, there’s been an increase in the number of passengers using the airport on a monthly basis.
According to Southern’s statistics released yesterday, 7,056 passengers either arrived or departed from the El Dorado Airport in 2018. That’s an increase of over 160 passengers a month from 2017.
“Southern’s scale in Arkansas is one of the main reasons we are able to perform at such high levels in El Dorado,” said Stan Little, chairman and CEO of Southern Airways. “Operating scheduled air service at three airports in the state guarantees a high reliability at each of them since extra pilots and extra aircraft are never far away. Our operational spares can easily be deployed to cover a plane’s flat tire or a pilot’s sick call.”
Southern also operates flights out of Harrison and Hot Springs, both of which also experienced passenger growth in 2018.
The release credited Southern’s growth with steady fares, reliable service and the ability to fly into Dallas as a hub to other locations.
However, Johnathan Estes, manager of South Arkansas Regional Airport at Goodwin Field, said he credits the increase on Southern’s aggressive marketing campaigns in the area.
“A lot of the increase has come from the outstanding job Southern’s done promoting the airline,” Estes said. “If you look at past airlines, particularly SeaPort the most recent one that went under, if you knew there was an airport in El Dorado at all, you were kind of lucky.”
SeaPort Airlines conducted flights to and from El Dorado from October 2009, until declaring bankruptcy in September 2016. This led to a lapse in coverage until Southern Airways Express took over.
Under SeaPort, flights from El Dorado went to Dallas, Memphis and Hot Springs. However, Estes said a lot of traffic was word of mouth. However, Southern places advertisements before movies begin at the cinema and has several billboards around town promoting the flights to Dallas.
Estes also said they work on business to business relationships with some of the companies in the area such as Murphy Oil, SAU and the El Dorado School Board.
“I can’t tell you how many people I meet on a weekly or monthly basis that does not even realize that we have an airport of our size in El Dorado,” Estes said. “We can land F140s and 737s and they actually do land out here. But so many people don’t realize that El Dorado has an airport, let alone an airport that has an airline that will get you to Dallas 18 round trips a week.”
Estes said that the number of passengers isn’t proving to be too much of a challenge for the airport, but if growth continues this way there may be changes coming.
“For the airport, the increased volume isn’t too difficult,” Estes said. “We’ve expanded parking, which is something we didn’t really have in the past. If they continue to show this type of growth over time, we’re definitely going to need to add more parking spaces. I think the max capacity I have on parking so far has been 80 percent, but we’re getting close to filling out that whole parking lot.”
Estes said the primary runway is 6,600 feet, or just over a mile. He also said the El Dorado airport is larger by acreage than the Hot Springs airport and also has room to expand if necessary. Going forward, Estes said they’d like to be able to offer flights to Memphis again, which would increase the growth seen at the El Dorado Airport.
Along with the marketing, Estes said management has been different under Southern Airways.
“SeaPort Airlines, I attribute their failure to poor management,” Estes said. “If you look at Southern Airways, the exact same airplanes pretty much to the exact same community almost to the exact same area. If you look at SeaPort Airlines, they serviced Memphis, Hot Springs, El Dorado and down to Dallas. Here Southern Airways is having 37 percent increase and they’re only serving Dallas.
“Their reliability has been better. Every airline is going to have some delays or cancellations. That’s not unique to any plane size. That’s just how aviation works. There’s just some weather that it’s better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air than in the air wishing you were on the ground. But reliability and management would be the two main things that have helped this increase along with the marketing.”
Michael Shine may be reached at 870-862-6611 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter and like him on Facebook @MichaelAZShine for updates on Union County school news.