OPINION | TED TALLEY: XNA has come a long way, and it’s still going places

Region’s airport a historic achievement

A milestone in Northwest Arkansas history was noted last week. Twenty-five years ago Northwest Arkansas National Airport, also known by its federal designator XNA, opened with pomp, ceremony and Air Force One delivering native son and POTUS Bill Clinton as keynote speaker.

To celebrate this quadranscentennial I went to the movies and later enjoyed a slice of random birthday cake from Rick's Bakery. In case you missed that connection, the movie was "What Happens Later" released on Friday, starring Meg Ryan and David Duchovny, with interior sequences filmed within the airport and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Even the airport's moving sidewalk played a key role. The visual effects within Crystal Bridges were stunning, so much that I suspect moviegoers elsewhere in the country will wonder "Where is that beautiful airport?"

Twenty-five years ago and further back the questions were not "where" but "how, what, when and why?"

"When we built the airport, we didn't have one airline signed up. I mean, zero," airport board member Phillip Taldo said in a video released for the commemoration.

Still, construction of XNA moved forward in a mash-up of Sam Walton's discount store expansion modus and Hollywood's "Field of Dreams" fantasy: Build it and they will come.

The airport, opened first as Northwest Arkansas Regional, made sense considering Northwest Arkansas growth. Woefully constrained Drake Field, the long-time scheduled service airport south of Fayetteville, needed a replacement. Renamed Fayetteville Executive Airport, today it thrives with civil and charter aviation. Even so, we needed a larger airport on a plateau, not in a valley.

Stumbling blocks appeared.

First there was the purported existence of endangered blind cave fish on the property. Somehow that was handled. Did the fish swim away to Missouri?

Then came rumors that the airport was to be a "chickenport" for the benefit of Tyson Foods. The protein giant was to express chickens to China in jumbo jets. And even crazier, Walmart was to collude as planes returned with Chinese goods for store shelves. I can't comment on the efficiency of flying birds to Asia, but transporting Walmart goods by air rather than container ship surely flies in the face of Walmart's long-held practice of driving costs out of the transaction.

Network news stepped in. John Stossel of ABC's "20/20" concocted a hit piece pegging the airport as government boondoggle waste and corporate welfare; it was going to be the "Walmart airport" (see Chinese chickens above). Never mind that the retailer had its own corporate aircraft hub so to speak, and still does: Rogers Municipal. Ironically, many beneficiaries of a new airport serving Walmart's hometown would be Stossel's very neighbors in the Tristates: execs and analysts from towering consumer product headquarters in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. I know. Once based in Stamford, Connecticut I held credentials in the great band of Northeast vendors, though I never dressed in black like Manhattan suppliers, descending upon Store 100 across from the home office, searching for their wares similar to a murder of crows at an unguarded corn crib.

Insult to injury: the 20/20 segment soundtrack was banjo music. And who tipped off ABC in the first place? I've long suspected a cabal of Fayetteville's town-and-gown plus the Birkenstock shod who feared losing the commercial airport prestige to that nouveau-riche Bentonville dime store crowd.

The airport started small, yet modern. I recall early days as carriers segued from noisy puddle-jumping turbo-props to regional jets. Yes, they were slender metal tubes, but finally we had jets! Just two upper-level jetway gates served American Eagle to Dallas and Chicago. An escalator to the left of security descended to tarmac level gates for Delta, TWA and Northwest Airlink. That was it, just five gates, three of them ground-level doorways. Later came a narrow terminal extension for Delta and Continental Express (later United). Complaints arose from the warehouse-like starkness of the extension. Yet the last time I connected in Denver and Houston, United Express still had narrow, stuffy (especially in Houston) hallways with exposed utility lines above. XNA had long left such behind.

To me XNA is the "little airport that could" for good reason. One loses count of its improvements since 1998, like a Walmart in a prosperous zip code, fine-tuning to meet the market. Air fares may be higher than one would like on some routes. Nevertheless, we enjoy a top-notch facility ready for Hollywood close-ups with service breadth and frequency atypical for villages our size.

Time to offer a sincere wish to Northwest Arkansas National Airport: Happy birthday and many happy returns! And departures as well.

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