Smyrna Airport eyeing NIA's commercial air traffic

Monday, August 6, 2007 at 2:05am

For John Black, executive director of the Smyrna/Rutherford Co. Airport Authority, the phone call back in 2002 was memorable, to say the least. A representative of Southwest Airlines was on the phone. The airline was floating a trial balloon to see if they could start commercial traffic at the Smyrna airport.

“The discussions didn’t go too far,” quipped Black. But the call was a milestone for the former Sewart Air Force base – turned – general aviation airport’s progress.

Already the busiest general aviation airport in Tennessee, Smyrna has made a name for itself with corporate clients, who are the airport’s main customers.

“What we’ve done in the past 15 years is develop the airport to be a corporate business center,” said Black. “In our corporate side we have lots of sports teams, lots of people in the music business, people in health care and development.”

Companies such as Louisiana-Pacific and Nissan, with its nearby plant, are basing all or part of their fleets at Smyrna. That’s contributed to boom times of sorts at the airport.

Smyrna handles about 400 flight operations per day, Black said, and of the roughly 220 planes that are based there, “about 70 percent of those are corporate.”

It’s those customers and their flights that have pushed Smyrna passed its planning expectations, said Black, adding that the airport is currently exceeding its goals by about 2 percent for the year.

So as Smyrna’s airport builds a name for itself with corporate clients and as the Nashville area continues to grow, could regular commercial passenger traffic be far off?

Black — admittedly the main salesperson for the airport in his executive director post — thinks it’s just a matter of time. The Smyrna-Rutherford Co. Airport Authority already makes its home in a gleaming, four-year-old building that Black says could do duty as a makeshift terminal once a commercial carrier is signed on to service Smyrna.

Once a commercial carrier is signed, says Black, the Smyrna airport has 40 acres on its north side for a terminal, ramp and other facilities.

“We get a lot of calls [from airlines interested in coming here],” said Black. “I think within 10-15 years, we’ll have commercial service, with the big planes coming here.”

Not everyone’s as optimistic as Black, however.

“I kind of doubt it [will happen],” said Butch Gelband, manager of planning for the Metropolitan Nashville Airport Authority, when asked about Smyrna’s potential for landing commercial passenger flights. “Actually, I sincerely doubt it. I just don’t see it happening.”

With a long career in aviation, Gelband knows his airports well. He knows that Nashville International Airport, built originally to handle traffic as an American Airlines hub, has a lot of unused potential, both in runways and terminal space.

“We have a lot of redundancy,” said Gelband. “We were designed as a hub airport, which gives us an advantage in capacity. And we’re a de facto hub for Southwest, although technically they don’t have hubs.”

Nashville airport figures are huge, dwarfing Smyrna’s numbers. More than 9.6 million passengers either got on or got off a plane in Nashville in 2006. Daily, the airport sees an average of 260 daily commercial flights, along with 186 air taxi flights and 125 general aviation flights, the latter of which include everything from corporate aviation to flight school instruction.

Toss in another nine or so military flights a day, and Nashville Airport’s ability to handle much more commercial traffic gets more impressive. Additionally, Gelband says Nashville, in its long-range (20-50 years out) planning, could add another runway.

Point-to-point flights

But as Nashville grows — and as recent protests from East Nashville residents show — not everyone wants steady and growing jet traffic over their neighborhoods.

Black said commercial jet traffic in Smyrna, with its more rural setting and the airport’s 1,700 acres of land, wouldn’t be as intrusive as in Nashville. The land, especially, provides a buffer, said Black.

Still, fans of Smyrna doubt whether it could land regular commercial traffic.

Buch Buchanan, the chief pilot for Louisiana-Pacific Corp. with more than 25 years experience flying for the company, sees tremendous potential in the Smyrna airport, especially in corporate aviation.

Louisiana-Pacific chose to locate its flight operations in Smyrna rather than the Nashville airport when it decided to move its corporate headquarters from Oregon in 2004.

“The deal was much better,” says Buchanan. Fees at Nashville “were much more expensive, and it seemed even more so when you considered it was just an easy drive to Smyrna.”

Buchanan thinks that Smyrna could develop into the region’s corporate aviation hub, akin to what DeKalb-Peachtree Airport is to Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport.

“It could also be used as a reliever for Nashville, if Nashville couldn’t be used for some reason,” said Buchanan. “But I don’t think you’ll ever find bona fide airline service at Smyrna.”

But there might be a third option. Smyrna’s Black is excited about one of the latest possibilities in aviation, the Very Light Jet (VLJ) concept.

Now being tried most noticeably by DayJet in Florida, the concept would allow passengers to buy a ticket on a small, corporate-sized jet and fly, for example, from Smyrna to Myrtle Beach for a golf outing and get back the same day.

“They’d fly point-to-point, like a charter,” said Black. “But they’d do it for not much more than a commercial carrier, and you’d get to bypass security and land at another smaller airport.”

Whether or not that happens is still questionable. The use of VLJs for such travel is still up in the air. As Louisiana-Pacific’s Buchanan explains, the jury’s still out on the concept.

“I’ve seen a lot of great ideas out there, but they still have to make money somewhere,” he said. Still, one never knows.

“Aviation,” said Buchanan, “has always been a very quirky industry.”

Filed under: City Business
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By: serr8d on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Yes, quirky, and also fuel-intensive. We will have to see, but my prediction is that airline traffic might just decrease in the future, given that fuel resources are becoming more expensive, and some conservation will be needed. At some point, conservation will become mandantory, and difficult. Now, it's only voluntary. I know our economy is based on ever-increasing traffic, and ever-increasing growth of every industry, but jeez, that will come right up against a wall of reality. A empty tank, so to speak...

By: NashDavis on 12/31/69 at 6:00

"pushed Smyrna passed its planning expectations"Past.

By: JeffF on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Stories such as these will become a lot more common once the travel industry gets tired of being the cash cow for the various downtown Nashville capital projects. I personally hope that the Nashvile Airport leadership starts seeing that their increase in "access" fees for various off-airport parking and hotel facilites have led to an overall decrease in revenue. Also the CVB's use of rental car fees and still more airport access fees to fund the newest white elephant in downtown really needs to be dealt a blow. If BNA's largest carrier was to evacuate to the R.C. then all those rental car agencies would love to leave BNA and its up-and-coming, obnoxious "tourist" fees behind them.If a project is not good enough to have local citizens pay for it then it definetly is not fair enough to dump 15-20% in tax or tax-equivalents on our guests. The downtown touron businesses know their perpetual need for more stuff stinks. They have decided to move the stink to the airport and each and every Nashville hotel/motel room.

By: exportlaw on 12/31/69 at 6:00

It was that long ago that Wiggins Group PLC entered into an option to set an international cargo hub at Smyrna which would have had the capacity to bring in direct tourist charters from Europe as well. Such an operation would have boosted Tennessee's export potential as well as decreased the cost for European country fans wanting to visit. But depend upon the Not in My Backyard Bunch to rally. Even though when the Air Force donated the closed base to the county, it was contemplated that it would be an industrial airport that would spur economic development, the residential real estate developers just saw it as cheap land for a quick kill, and as a result its original intended and best use has been stymied. Local residents who had bought cheap lots on the former A.F.B. and the Nashville airport authority did everything they could to derail it. Expect the same suspects to try to kill any commercial operations.

By: 67type1 on 12/31/69 at 6:00

It will come to Smyrna eventually. It's just a matter of time before the management "style" of the Nashville Airport gives a carrier a reason to come to Smyrna.

By: gatech on 12/31/69 at 6:00

I used to live in Lake Forest Estates, which is right in the flight path of the Smyrna airport. I can assure you that the "buffer zone" isn't quite as grand as they say here. There were many planes that shook my house to the foundation. Granted, it wasn't a daily occurance, but then again there aren't currently huge planes flying into Smyrna daily. I don't think it would be a major problem for Smyrna/La Vergne citizens, but someone surely would complain.Smyrna definitely has the capacity to support commercial operations, I'm just not sure that Greater Nashville is large enough to justify 2 commercial airports. If BNA lost SouthWest, that would really hurt BNA. I would think that SouthWest would merely want to use Smyrna as barganing power against BNA. And Nashille's other Airlines such as Delta, AA, Northwest, etc. wouldn't want to move to Smyrna because they benefit from the volume at BNA.And another question: if MNAA is overcharging for planes at BNA, why does it cost $5 for a coke in the airport?

By: 67type1 on 12/31/69 at 6:00

Why does it cost $5 for a coke? Because they can. Once you are past the checkpoint, you aren't going back out to get something. The rent for the shops is extremely high as well, so if they are taking advantage of you, they are being taken advantage of...