Air Transport World

Wal-Mart's Air Port; located close to the HQ of the world's largest retailer, Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport may be the ultimate niche airfield.(AIRPORTS)(Wal-Mart Stores Inc.)(head quarter)

Peering down from Air Force One, the 42nd US President beckoned the leaders of his Secret Service detail. "I want you guys to look out the window," said Bill Clinton. "This is where I started my political career. I've been on every one of these roads."

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Down below was a corner of north-western Arkansas then emergent as one of the hottest swaths of real estate in the nation thanks mainly to the presence of a single entity: Wal-Mart. It was Nov. 6, 1998. The occasion: Full-blown opening ceremonies for Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport, one of the first greenfield aerodromes constructed in the US since Denver International. Smiling out at people he'd known for years, the President said, "I have a lot of stories about this airport. I want you to understand how high public policy is made in Washington." The crowd laughed. "We're all laughing about this," he continued. "But the truth is, this is a good thing and it needed to be done."

Conceived in a cloud of controversy, the $107 million facility was the butt of more than a few jokes--and the subject of an official congressional inquiry by the Government Accountability Office. Among other things, GAO found that FAA failed to "consistently use reliable, complete and verifiable data" in justifying its initial grants and letter of intent for the new airport. More telling, the agency possessed "no quantifiable means to demonstrate compliance with certain of its funding criteria, such as showing that a project will significantly enhance airport capacity."

A decade later, what could have been a political sinkhole, a place one critic called "the Arkansas Poultryport" (Tyson Foods is headquartered nearby), appears to have turned out just fine. …

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