Starting June 1, air travelers flying of out South Arkansas Regional Airport at Goodwin Field will have the opportunity to connect to all three Essential Air Service cities in the state.
Southern Airways Express, the area’s commercial EAS carrier, announced this week the addition of an intra-state route to its scheduled air service that links El Dorado directly to Hot Springs and Harrison, the other two EAS communities in Arkansas.
Southern Airways has served all three communities since 2017.
“Having three non-stop choices from El Dorado is a real boon to the community and a reflection of the great leadership at the South Arkansas Regional Airport,” said Stan Little, board chairman and chief executive officer for Southern Airways.
The airline offered the new regional weekend flights as part of its pitch to renew its EAS contracts with the U.S. Department of Transportation and continue serving the three Arkansas cities.
The current two-year contracts expire at the end of May.
Last September, members of the El Dorado Airport Commission and Johnathan Estes, manager of South Arkansas Regional Airport (SARA), reviewed bid packages from five airlines, including Southern Airways, who were vying for the 2021 - 2023, government-subsidized contract.
Airport commissioners also heard presentations from two of the airlines, one of them Southern Airways, that submitted bids.
While speaking to the group, Little said the airline was seeking to boost air travel within the state with a “Connect Arkansas” marketing campaign.
In addition to regular flights to international airports in Dallas-Fort Worth and Memphis, Little said Southern Airways would add round-robin trips, in which passengers could catch weekend flights between El Dorado, Hot Springs and Harrison without stops or layovers in Dallas or Memphis.
The intra-state trips are an at-risk service that is being offered by Southern Express and are not included in the government subsidy.
After considerable discussion, airport commissioners agreed to continue with Southern Airways for another two years and chose a bid option that would amend the existing contract.
Per the terms of the agreement with the USDOT, Southern Express is required to offer 18 round-trip flights per week for its El Dorado routes.
Twelve of those flights head west to Dallas-Fort Worth and six go east to Memphis.
As a part of the new contract, which goes into effect June 1, airport commissioners settled on a bid option that would reduce the number of flights to Memphis from six to four and increase the DFW route by two round trips per week.
Commissioners and Estes said the DFW leg is used more often than the Memphis route and draws more interest among commercial air travelers who fly out of SARA.
“We think that connecting the state of Arkansas for the first time in many years is a winning strategy,” Little said.
A plus for those who travel to Harrison, he said, is that the northern Arkansas city is centered in the Ozark Mountains, lies along the Buffalo River and is only a 20-minute drive from Branson, Missouri, a popular tourist destination.
Hot Springs is also a preferred spot for an extended vacation or weekend getaway in Arkansas and has many attractions, including the Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort.
Estes made similar statements, adding that the new flight schedule will also allow people coming from Hot Springs and Harrison to attend events in El Dorado, including festivals and concerts.
“I think the Hot Springs, Harrison and El Dorado flight lines up pretty well if people want to go to the horse races in Hot Springs or the casino or to Harrison,” he said. “For people who want to go (to events in the Murphy Arts District) in El Dorado, they can get here by five o’clock (p.m.) to enjoy a show.”
He said rental car services are also available at SARA and are a convenient tool that can be used by visitors to ferry themselves to local destinations.
Conversely, the flight from El Dorado to Hot Springs and Harrison pulls out of SARA at 11:25 a.m. on Friday, with arrivals scheduled in Hot Springs by 12:35 p.m. and Harrison by 1:40 p.m. “to enjoy whatever events they may be attending,” Estes said.
As a part of EAS contract negotiations with Southern Airways in 2020, Estes said that he and regional airport managers in Hot Springs and Harrison — Glen Barentine, and Judy McCutcheon, respectively — asked for the intra-state route.
“And Stan (Little) said yes,” Estes said. “Other than flights to LR (Little Rock), I think we’ve (fielded) more questions with people trying to go to Hot Springs and flights to Harrison.”
“This is something that the public has been asking for and now we’re holding the public to it. If Southern doesn’t get the flights, they don’t make the money,” he continued. “Hopefully, the first intra-state flights will be a success.”
Little said the new service pattern will also add a Memphis connection to Hot Springs, a link that was already a part of flight schedules for El Dorado and Memphis.
The Florida-based Southern Airways, which flies nine-seat Cessna Grand Caravans, is hoping to continue boosting its passenger count back up to pre-coronavirus (COVID-19) levels.
Overall, boarding numbers for commercial flights at SARA dropped in 2020 because of the pandemic, but Estes said there were some points throughout the year that the numbers did not fall as low as expected.
The decrease was more glaring during other months, however.
For instance, in April 2019, there were 245 enplanements from SARA to DFW, compared to just 28 during the same month last year, according to reports from Southern Airways.
On May 10, Estes told airport commissioners that DFW boardings had climbed to 200 in April this year.
Southern Airways is kicking off the new intra-Arkansas link with an introductory rate that starts at $59. Standard fares progressively increase for Frugal, Friendly and Freedom flight packages, which top out at $149 for the Freedom flight ticket.
For more information about the new schedule or to book a flight, visit www.iflysouthern.com or call 1-800-329-0485.