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award-winning aviation
by Audrey Hanes, photography by Dero Sanford

These days, Jonesboro is known for its thriving economy, its homey Southern attitude and its charitable nature. But now that Jonesboro Regional Airport has been recognized by the FAA, Jonesboro will also be known for having the best airport in Arkansas.

“We’re all thrilled about it,” said airport manager Philip Steed of Jonesboro being named the Best Airport in Arkansas. “The FAA notified us that we had won the award in November of last year, making it Jonesboro’s first time to receive it. To be a part of that, along with the current Airport Commission…it really reflects how hard we’ve all worked.”

According to Steed, who has been managing the airport since 1982, the airport’s numerous upgrades would not have been possible without the federal and state grant money that it has been lucky enough to receive.

“It came down to the airport’s improvements,” he said as to why the airport was chosen for the award. “Because of these grants, we’ve been able to lengthen the runways, install a whole new runway lighting system and install new LED lights on all of our taxiways, which makes us the first airport in Arkansas to get those.

“We have also been able to build more hangars. Up until two years ago, Jonesboro didn’t have a traditional T-hangar. Now, we have 16 that were all built because of state grants.”

These days, the airport is growing and thriving, but that wasn’t always the case.
“Jonesboro has struggled for airline service for as long as I can remember,” said Steed. “Now, we have 90 aircraft based here.”

Most of that growth can be attributed to one of two things, the most recent of which being the addition of SeaPort Airlines. After going nearly two years without an airline service based there, Jonesboro Regional Airport was happy to welcome the airline in October 2009. Originally, the airline ran three flights to and from Memphis every day of the week except for Saturday, but as of last month, Seaport has substituted one of its daily Memphis runs for one to Kansas City instead.

“We’re really excited about the KC run,” said Steed. “And it’s really convenient for people to fly out of Jonesboro to Memphis because there’s no parking charge for leaving your car here.”

The airport has also grown due to the success of the numerous large corporations that call Jonesboro home. Companies like Fowler Foods, Sunbelt Finance, Hytrol Conveyor Company, Post and Frito Lay all fly into JBR’s corporate flight department.

“That’s how we’ve gotten to be a real corporate flight hub for Northeast Arkansas,” said Steed. “Some other smaller airports can’t handle large jets, but Jonesboro benefits from them being able to come here.”

One thing is for certain; Steed’s job requirements today are very different from what they started out as almost 30 years ago.

“My job has changed over the years,” said Steed. “I still wear a lot of hats. The airport has really grown, so my job has changed along with it. I’m also a pilot, so I have flexible time to do pilot services for aircraft owners.”

When Steed originally started flying in ’79, he considered flying to be more of a hobby. It didn’t take long for that hobby to turn into a career.

“I have always been fascinated with airplanes,” he said when thinking back to where it all began. “Growing up, when we were on family road trips, my dad would try to find any airports in the area, just so I could see them as we drove by.

“We didn’t miss many air shows, either. We’d go to the Air Force bases in Millington and Blytheville for those. Even then, I was always drawing airplanes.”
The airport manager grew up in Leachville, Ark. with his sister and three brothers. If Steed’s name sounds familiar, it might be because of the media coverage that he and his brothers received when they were younger; all four boys have the exact same birthday, October 27, but were born in four different years.

When he’s not doing something airplane-related, Steed and his wife, JoAnne, are busy raising their two children, 16-year-old Anne Marie and 11-year-old Philip Jr.

“Our kids grew up getting to change runway light bulbs,” said Steed with a laugh. “They know all of the airport lingo.”

One of Steed’s favorite airplanes to pilot is his 1946 Piper J-3 Cub.

“It’s relaxing and it’s fun to fly,” said Steed of his aircraft. “I love that I’m able to do it. I love airplanes and I love flying them, which I never thought I’d be able to do. I mean, I’ve even gotten to fly a Learjet.

“You couldn’t ask for a better job. I get to be around airplanes on a daily basis, and I’m around people with my same interests. It’s like a family.”