Enplanements at Northwest Arkansas National Airport (XNA) in Highfill are not expected to return to 2019 levels until 2024, based on a new report cited by CEO Aaron Burkes.
Burkes discussed the S&P Global Ratings report in an XNA board meeting Wednesday (Feb. 24). In January, enplanements, which represent the number of passengers who fly out of the airport, declined 67.8% to 21,645, from 67,306 in the same month in 2020.
Over the same period, enplanements declined by comparable rates at the other large commercial airports in Arkansas. They fell by 62.6% to 2,574, from 6,888, at Fort Smith Regional Airport. They decreased by 55.3% to 35,339, from 79,225 at Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport in Little Rock.
Tim O’Donnell, chief financial officer for XNA, said enplanements so far through February are flat, or down about 68%. Also, O’Donnell noted the airport will receive $4.1 million in 2021 from the second stimulus package that was approved in December. The first stimulus package, which was approved in March 2020, provided $51 million for Arkansas airports. XNA received $8.21 million of that amount. O’Donnell said the third stimulus package would have airport funding similar to the initial package.
O’Donnell presented to the board a chart showing when XNA might look to complete projects based on the recovery in enplanements. In May, the board is expected to discuss whether to proceed with the sky bridge project.
Based on the S&P Global Ratings report, XNA’s enplanements are projected to be 553,500 in 2021, 830,250 in 2022 and 876,375 in 2023. In 2020, enplanements declined by 60.9% to 360,133, from 922,533 in 2019.
While airlines lost more than $42 billion in 2020, Burkes said they are optimistic with herd immunity on the horizon. He said herd immunity from COVID-19 is expected as soon as April or at least by June. Airlines are purchasing airplanes and announcing new routes. Meanwhile, the Transportation Security Administration is hiring agents to prepare for a summer surge.
Board members also discussed the $85 million project to build a connector road from Arkansas Highway 612 to the south entrance of XNA. Garver, in coordination with the Arkansas Department of Transportation (ArDOT), will host a virtual meeting at 5:30 p.m. March 2 on the proposed road. Board member Mike Johnson said the road is expected to be a divided four-lane highway with a 70 mph speed limit.
Also in the meeting, board member Sara Lilygren was appointed chairwoman. Board member Blake Woolsey formerly served as chairwoman. Lilygren, who was vice chair, was appointed to the board in 2014 by the city of Rogers.