Andrew Branch, chief business development officer at Northwest Arkansas National Airport (XNA) in Highfill, said there are still many months to get through before airport traffic returns to 2019 levels.
XNA reported record enplanement growth that year. Enplanements, or passengers flying out, rose 17% to 922,533, from 788,261 in 2018. Enplanements were down approximately 60% in 2020. Between January and April this year, enplanements were off by about 30%, compared with the same four months of 2020.
Still, recent XNA announcements of additional direct flights underscore a growing appetite for airline travel.
“We have seen seven or eight weeks in a row of positive growth [in passengers],” Branch said. “People seem to be returning to the airport. It’s heavily leisure. We’re seeing a few business [travelers], but we’d love to see more.”
Branch said the gap between leisure and business travelers is likely to remain significant in the weeks and months ahead. However, there are positive indicators that could lead to closing the gap.
“It’s mostly anecdotal because the airlines and businesses don’t provide us with any real hard data, but we do know from talking with some of our local corporate partners that they are starting to travel more,” Branch said. “And you can tell when you look at our passengers in the terminal. Some look like they are more dressed for business meetings than people with families going on trips. But we are seeing a lot more leisure [travelers] than we normally see this time of year.”
Airlines are taking notice and responding to the demand. In May, Salt Lake City-based airline startup Breeze opened booking for 39 nonstop flights to 16 destinations, including Northwest Arkansas. Nonstop flights to Tampa, Fla., will start in June, and those to San Antonio and New Orleans will begin in July.
Discount air carrier Allegiant will add additional flights from XNA to Florida later this year. The new service to St. Petersburg will begin July 2. Flights to Fort Lauderdale will begin Oct. 8.
“The airlines are pretty sophisticated, and I think they understand the business travel is going to come back slower,” Branch said. “So they’ve shifted to get into more leisure routes. Airlines like Allegiant have reaped the benefit of leisure travel growth because they were already focused on it. We have six destinations to Florida with these recent announcements, and four of those are with Allegiant. You can tell the higher volume destinations we’re seeing are starting to shift toward leisure destinations.”
Branch said XNA still has some direct flights that are temporarily unavailable due to COVID-19. He is hopeful those will return later this year.
“Our peak before COVID was 19 destinations, including seasonals,” Branch said. “If everything came back — along with the Allegiant announcement last month — we could have 27 routes to 24 unique destinations by October.”
Branch acknowledges that increasing airline traffic will challenge the airport’s capacity to accommodate it. It’s not a pressing issue in the present— the number of flights per day at XNA is still roughly half of the pre-COVID total — but it could become a higher priority in the future. XNA’s terminal uses 14 gates.
“New facilities and expanded gates come with a pretty significant capital cost, and that can be challenging,” Branch said. “You balance serving the need, but then also if you spend too much on facilities, the airlines can’t support the flights because they are paying for a lot of that, ultimately.
“There are some creative ideas of how to do gate allocation; different pricing ideas for gates for the airlines. The good news is that many of these leisure travel companies like Allegiant, Breeze and Frontier don’t really fly simultaneously with the legacy carriers. There will be some shuffling of schedules and creative ways of parking planes that will have to happen.
“We think we can manage it for a while longer, but at some point, we’ll have to add gates.”
“This new route comes at the perfect time as travel demand is picking up at XNA,” Branch said. “This new route is the result of the success Frontier has experienced with their service to Denver. We are confident the people of Northwest Arkansas will enjoy this new nonstop option to Las Vegas.”
In 2019, Frontier started to offer flights from XNA to Denver.
“Since we started service from XNA to Denver in 2019, we’ve seen a great response. And so we’re excited to add a second nonstop destination from the airport,” said Daniel Shurz, senior vice president of commercial for Frontier Airlines. “Frontier is focused on ‘Low Fares Done Right,’ and this new service will provide an affordable and convenient option for local residents to visit one of the top entertainment destinations in the world.”