XNA official says no end in sight for Northwest Arkansas growth

by Jeff Della Rosa ([email protected]) 4,903 views 

Ryan Blackwell, left, executive and teaching pastor at Cross Church in Rogers, leads a panel discussion Thursday with officials from Northwest Arkansas National Airport (XNA) as part of the Summit, a business lunch speaker series. With Blackwell are, from left, Alex English, Kelly Johnson and Andrew Branch.

Enplanements at Northwest Arkansas National Airport (XNA) rose 18.8% in January, from the same month in 2019, as the region continues to grow with no end in sight, said Andrew Branch, chief business development officer for the Highfill airport. Enplanements, which account for passengers flying out, were 67,306 in January.

Branch was one of three XNA officials who spoke about the airport during a panel discussion Thursday (Feb. 27) at Cross Church in Rogers as part of the Summit, a business lunch speaker series. Kelly Johnson, chief operating officer and airport director, and Alex English, public relations and marketing specialist, were also on the panel.

Enplanements rose 17% to 922,533 in 2019, from 2018, and passenger traffic has increased by almost 26% in the past two years, Johnson said.

“That’s phenomenal,” she said. “We’re running to keep up. We’ve got a lot of facilities and things planned to do with all that extra traffic. Certainly, parking facilities, surface parking facilities, those kinds of things that we need to do to make sure we’re providing you all the services that you need as well as the route development that Andrew is working so hard on.”

English noted the enplanement increase in 2019 was greater than the combined growth of the airports in Little Rock, Springfield, Mo., and Tulsa, Okla., “which is incredible for a small hub airport.”

When asked about the addition of a new low-cost carrier, Branch had nothing to announce, but he continues to have conversations with carriers. Over the past year, air carriers who provide service at XNA added multiple new flights, including those to Phoenix, Ariz., Nashville, Tenn., Philadelphia and Miami. Branch said it’s difficult to know what new flights to expect next as the carriers don’t often say.

“They have to make a business case for those,” he said. “Those planes are expensive. It’s a big investment for an airline to add a new route or come to a new market. It’s a constant struggle.”

Branch also was asked about when might low-cost carrier Southwest Airlines might start to provide service in Northwest Arkansas.

“Not anytime soon,” he said.

Branch said he recently met with officials of the carrier. They love the area, he said, but people here are already flying Southwest. Every time a traveler drives to Tulsa or Little Rock to fly Southwest, Branch said that makes it more difficult for the carrier to want to come to Northwest Arkansas. But, he said, the carrier might have a better business case to come here in five to 10 years.

“We can speed that along by more people flying out of XNA,” Branch said. “And fewer people flying out of Tulsa. If you live in Tulsa, fly out of Tulsa, but don’t drive to Tulsa, I think, is the key message.”

Branch responded to a related question about pricing at the airport, and said as the airport grows, airfares should fall. He noted the airport has no input in pricing, and the airlines set the fares at the prices customers in the market are willing to pay. Low-cost carriers are expected to impact the pricing, and after Frontier Airlines start to provide flights to Denver three times a week in 2019, airfares to the city have declined significantly.

Johnson said fares at XNA are falling and are down about $10 per ticket. She said sometimes fares are less than they are at Tulsa, and people who book flights early receive lower fares.

Johnson also spoke about the recently completed expansion to the security checkpoint, and the fourth checkpoint lane is planned to open before the Walmart shareholders meeting, which usually takes place in early June. Some of the other projects the airport looks to consider this year include the renovation of the front of the terminal, the addition of a second concourse on the west side of the terminal, a rental car parking garage and a new baggage claim area. Branch said the airport has looked at about $200 million in projects, including a new hotel and a gas station.

Another project in the works is a connector road that is expected to improve access to the airport from Interstate 49. In December, the Arkansas Department of Transportation (ArDOT) hosted a meeting about proposed alignments for the road, and English said 92% of those who filled out a survey on the project supported building a new road or expanding existing roads to the airport. The project is in the environmental phase, and English said the next meeting for it is expected to take place in July. Link here for more on the project.

Branch said the funding for the project is expected to come from the existing half-cent sales tax for highway projects. Voters in the Nov. 3 general election will decide whether to make permanent the half-cent sales tax. If the tax isn’t extended, it could delay the project between five and 10 years, he said.