GRK on the rebound: the sky’s the limit

By LYNETTE SOWELL

Cove Leader-Press

 

The Killeen-Fort Hood Regional Airport, like other airports across the country, has had to deal with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in every facet of its operations, while still keeping its staff at work and its customers served.

The airport, known in aviation by its destination handle “GRK,” serves thousands of residents in the Central Texas region, and not just Fort Hood.

The airport received several grants, to include $2.2 million from the CARES act, $1.7 million with CRRSAA, and $2.7 million via ARPA. The funds go primarily toward operational expenses to offset the airport’s loss of revenue.

The airport’s traffic has begun to see a rebound, outpacing that of other airports, with nationwide numbers showing domestic airline passengers are still down 25 to 30 percent compared to this same time in 2019.

Mike Wilson, GRK’s Executive Director of Aviation, said that May, June and July of 2021 have seen enplanements that were 7 to 10 percent higher than the same months in 2019. In August, however, they saw a 13.4 percent dip with the spike in the Delta variant of COVID.

Along with this year’s rebound, GRK now offers a new concessions look and experience to passengers, with Tail Winds Concessions at the helm. Tail Winds operates Co-Pilot Coffee & Cantina, which doubles as a coffee shop and bar.

“There was a bar here when the airport first opened, and then it closed. But Tail Winds has reopened it, and that’s been great,” said Jared Provost, GRK’s Director of Operations. “Travelers can even purchase beer post-TSA prior to their flight.”

Rotors & Wings Grill serves up hot food to travelers and visitors, with Provost saying the sandwich shop had become obsolete and not what travelers were looking for.

Boarding Time Gifts is GRK’s gift shop that greets newcomers and bids goodbye to those on their way out.

Provost said the security at the airport also has dozens of cameras, which has proved beneficial for customers, in the case of a woman and her daughter whose iPad was “lifted” by another passenger while they were having secondary screening via TSA.

“When they came out of screening, they discovered their iPad and charger were gone,” Provost said. “We were able to view the recording, identify the individual, and that person was greeted when they arrived at DFW prior to boarding their international flight.”

The woman and her daughter received their missing iPad back, thanks to the technology and the actions of the GRK staff. Two commercial airlines operate out of GRK, American and United.

American has five to eight round trip flights a day to its main hub, Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. United Airlines likewise has two to three round trips to Houston every day.

After that, the sky’s the limit for where customers can go. More information on the destinations can be found at www.flygrk.com.

One of the issues that Wilson wants to address is what in airport terms is called “leakage,” meaning losing potential local customers to other airports that are farther away.

Wilson said that on a daily basis more than 3,600 people who live within 40 to 60 miles of GRK fly somewhere, but only nine percent of them use the Killeen airport.

At GRK, lines are shorter for both checking in and heading through the TSA screening.

With the GRK airport being closer to the Copperas Cove area than Austin, flyers can park, check in and be at their gate, while a similar passenger heading for a flight out of Austin-Bergstrom will still be in their vehicle traveling more than one hour to get to that airport.

Wilson said that shopping for the flight pricing often reveals an average about $50 difference in the flights, and the time saving is a huge factor for many.

One of the initiatives that Wilson and his leadership team at GRK are working on is brand awareness.

In fact, some people, after all the years of the airport doing business, still think it’s a military-use only location.

That’s a misconception they plan to remedy.

In addition to domestic commercial flights, Operations Director Provost also pointed to the other services that GRK fulfills, including charter flights.

For example, Provost said that when the neighboring University of Mary Hardin-Baylor’s football team makes the playoffs, other football teams from other states utilize GRK when flying into the area for a game.

Wilson is looking ahead to what’s next for GRK and its renewed brand of being the local way to fly.

A fresh target market for GRK is offering flights to Denver International Airport, and they are currently in talks with United Airlines for those direct flights.

Wilson said approximately 174 people per day fly from the area to Denver, but only one or two of them fly from Killeen.

“Giving our local folks more options, especially direct flights, provides a better service to our customers and hopefully will encourage folks to Fly Killeen. The more people that use our airport, the easier it is to convince airlines to add frequency, additional destinations and to recruit new airlines,” said Wilson.

He also hopes that more competition can mean lower fares for customers, noting that GRK doesn’t have a hand in the fares that carriers charge. However, if the demand is up for those flights, then the airlines can look at offering more options.

Wilson said that GRK is the only airport in Texas to receive a $1 million Small Community Air Service Development Program (SCASDP) grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The airport was selected via a competitive process, with only 78 airports chosen nationwide.

Wilson credits the local community support via letters and funding from the Air Service Development Task force.

This is a group made up of area Chambers of Commerce, Convention & Visitor Bureaus, colleges and universities, AdventHealth, the Killeen Independent School District, the Killeen Economic Development Corporation, Fort Hood, and more.

A local match of $380,000 is being contributed, from the KEDC ($200,000), AdventHealth Central Texas ($10,000), $100,000 from the city’s Aviation Fund, along with $70,000 worth of in-kind services coming from the Airport and the City.

Along with the airport’s reboot comes growth, with two new hangars.

One, now under construction for CSI Aviation, has an anticipated completion date of January 2022, adding 42 jobs. The second hangar is currently in the design phase and will be completed by summer 2023.

Other current projects include replacement of the original HVAC system in the terminal, a parking lot makeover and restriping, and rehabbing the airport’s perimeter fencing and security gates.

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