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.
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.”