Administrators at the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport do an incredible job showing airlines there’s great value in expanding in our region.
Consider United Airlines. The airline was pulling back service in airports across the nation when it added daily nonstop service from XNA to San Francisco in October. Other airports got less from United; XNA got additional flights.
Delta Air Lines, meanwhile, started a new daily flight from XNA to New York LaGuardia earlier this month. What Delta hasn’t announced (and let’s keep this between us, OK?) is they’ll start a second daily nonstop to LaGuardia in the fall.
The big-picture view of what’s happening at XNA is even more impressive: The airport in May 2015 had 34 daily departures and those planes provided a combined 2,142 seats a day. By next month, it’ll be 39 daily departures and almost 2,600 seats.
But you know “the rest of the story” when it comes to XNA, and it’s why the Northwest Arkansas Council stepped up its work with the airport and the airlines. XNA desperately needs daily low-cost air service to create competition and to drive down airfares.
XNA passengers paid $503 apiece for round-trip flights in the year that ended Sept. 30, 2015, and it was $119 above the national average. The scary number is this one: If you multiply $119 by the number of people who flew from XNA during that year (628,699 passengers), it’s $74.9 million.
That’s not a one-time cost, either. Northwest Arkansas residents and businesses spend tens of millions of extra dollars every year because fares are high here.
A low-cost carrier providing daily service will make a difference and drive down that $503 average fare.
It happened in Wichita when AirTran (now part of Southwest Airlines) showed up in 2002. Fares on average dropped $52 per flight.
It happened in Pittsburgh when Southwest and JetBlue came to town in 2005 and 2006. Fares to most destinations from Pittsburgh decreased.
Fares in Little Rock (averaging $438 between October 2014 and September 2015) are helped by the presence of Southwest. And you know bags fly free on Southwest, right?
Dozens of conversations have occurred between XNA’s leadership and low-cost carriers, and those airlines are in the catbird seat. Every airport administrator without low-cost service wants it, and all airport administrators tell the low-cost airlines that they’re managing the best airport for new service. But there’s only one best airport for low-cost service, and that’s XNA.
XNA will get low-cost service. It’s just a question of when.
But our region’s greatest challenge won’t be getting the service; it’ll be keeping the service. That’s where you come in.
History shows what happens when airports get low-cost carriers. Terrified legacy carriers such as American Airlines, United and Delta lower their fares, and who can blame them? If a low-cost carrier offers $159 flights to a city, doesn’t a legacy carrier on the same route and potentially other routes have to drop fares to $159 to keep passengers?
Your temptation with $159 flights will be to stick with the airline you know best. After all, you’ve flown them for years. You may well be a business traveler who’s earned super-duper, titanium status in their frequent flier program. You may get seat upgrades all the time.
Don’t fall for it. It’s a trick.
If passengers don’t move from legacy carriers to the low-cost carrier and fly them on a regular basis, the low-cost carrier has no choice but to leave XNA. That’ll leave Northwest Arkansas in a real pickle.
Instead of being a region needing low-cost air service, Northwest Arkansas becomes a place that had low-cost service and lost it because the community didn’t show support.
That leads to one final question: Is it really necessary at this point to say there’s roughly a 110 percent chance that the $159 fares go bye-bye about 10 minutes after the low-cost carrier leaves XNA?
Rob Smith is communications and policy director for the Northwest Arkansas Council. He’s flown on Alaska, Allegiant, American, Delta, Southwest and United in the past year, and he loves them all equally. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.