By: Tony Gonzalez
December 26, 2011
SMYRNA – John Black hardly could have planned a better sales pitch.
As Black, executive director of the Smyrna Airport, sat with leaders of a large company considering the facility as the base for their corporate jet, movement out the window cut short his spiel.
Nissan’s corporate jet was emerging from the hangar.
“They went to that runway,” Black recalled in a recent interview, “and they took off in about 10 minutes.”
“I didn’t plan it,” he said. “But it was a really good example of how convenient we are.”
Such easy flying, along with low fuel costs and award-winning customer service, make the airport an increasingly important part of business recruitment and day-to-day economic activity in Rutherford County. It?s not surprising it has become an attractive alternative to the busier Nashville International Airport for corporate flights.
“The airport is the first impression, and it”s a statement about our community,” Black said. “Not every community has that.”
Named the state’s airport of the year in 2011, Smyrna Airport began as an Army aviation training field during World War II and operated as Sewart Air Force Base after the war. It was converted to civilian use in 1970. It still hosts some military training operations.
Showing signs of an early rebound from the recession, the operation in Smyrna will include bolder improvements in the coming year, including construction of the first new hangar since the downturn and infrastructure expansions for its business park, Black said.
General-aviation airports such as Smyrna’s struggled during the recession. Hangars previously at capacity were left empty, and construction and maintenance slowed.
But in the last half of this year, air traffic through Smyrna climbed 10 percent and fuel use flowed at 2007 levels, Black said.
Frank Young, chief pilot for Thompson Machinery, said he hesitated before moving the company’s corporate Learjet from Nashville International to Smyrna in 2003. Ease of flying into and out of the smaller airport sold him on the idea.
“Down at Smyrna, you taxi out, you get your clearance and you’re almost airborne instantly,’ he said. “It’s that easy.”
Smyrna has been marketed as an alternative to Nashville International and has lured away some of that airport?s corporate fliers, said Michael Hodges, president of the Tampa, Fla.-based consulting firm Airport Business Solutions, which has studied Tennessee airports.
In the early 1990s, when Hodges lived in the area and the Smyrna/Rutherford County Airport Authority took over management of the facility from the Metropolitan Nashville Airport Authority, the airfield existed alongside a “sleepy bedroom community,” he said.
“They have adapted to the changes that the area?s experienced economically and business-wise, and they’ve improved the airport to meet those needs,” he said.
Young said he expects more growth as corporate-aviation operators weigh the perks of Smyrna against the big neighbor 12 miles north. Black downplayed the competition, calling any increase in aviation a plus for the region.
Metropolitan Nashville Airport Authority President and CEO Raul Regalado congratulated the Smyrna Airport staff on its awards.
“I think they finally have found their niche and it seems to be working for them,” he said.
Local impact goes unnoticed
While the airport is the state?s busiest for general aviation, and recipient this year of the Tennessee Aeronautics Commission’s highest awards, some who work there said the airport?s impact on local life doesn’t always register in the community.
?The thing about airports is that most people complain about noise,? said Gary Bradshaw, founder of two aviation companies at the airport.
Describing the return of National Guard troops, medical helicopter flights and the constant coming and going of Fortune 500 company executives, Bradshaw called the airport a resource.
With his office on the ground floor of the terminal, Bradshaw is often the one to give a quick tour and invite inquisitive visitors to the airfield viewing patio. It?s open and free for people to watch planes arriving and departing, he said, but few take advantage.
“This community is unbelievably lucky to have this huge airport,” he said.
In awarding the airport its highest honor, the state Aeronautics Commission said as much, citing runway improvements, customer service, financial stability and steady outreach through community events such as the Great Tennessee Air Show.
“They’re on their way,” said Young, the Thompson Machinery pilot. “Its potential has not been reached yet.”
Source: THE TENNESSEAN