Seasonal factors, COVID contribute to lower XNA enplanements in August

by Jeff Della Rosa ([email protected]) 591 views 

Northwest Arkansas National Airport (XNA) in Highfill had fewer enplanements in August, compared to the previous month, amid an increase in COVID-19 cases and a softening of leisure travel.

However, the number of passengers flying out rose by 122.1% to 55,687 in August, from 25,068 in the same month in 2020. Between January and August, enplanements are up 41.8% to 352,361, from 247,574 in the same period in 2020.

Historically, enplanements have fallen between July and August. In 2019, enplanements declined to 79,582 in August, from 91,222 in July. Still, XNA officials expect 2021 enplanements to be about 550,000, or down about 40% from 2019 levels.

On Wednesday (Sept. 22), CEO Aaron Burkes provided an industry update to the XNA Board of Directors.

“The industry rebound has paused,” Burkes said. “That’s largely the result of seasonal changes with leisure travelers typically traveling during the summer and also the delta variant surge has been a big part of that.”

Nationally, he said new COVID cases reached a peak on Sept. 1. In Arkansas, they hit a peak in mid-August, he noted.

“It looks like things are headed in the right direction, so we’re optimistic that maybe the worst is behind us for the delta variant,” he added.

Burkes also was optimistic XNA could be back to 2019 enplanement levels in 2023 as it pivots to leisure travel. He noted 25% of XNA enplanements recently could be attributed to low-cost carriers. Their customers are largely leisure travelers.

“Between Allegiant and Breeze, we’ve got a lot of coverage in Florida,” Burkes said. “Over one-third of our destinations are Florida locations and obviously Las Vegas and other leisure destinations.”

Andrew Branch, chief business development officer, said XNA’s 10 new routes this year will be provided by low-cost carriers. Branch noted nonstop flights to Los Angeles might return in November, and flights to San Francisco likely won’t resume until travel to Asia restarts.

Kelly Johnson, chief operating officer, said international travel is about 46% of what it was in 2019 and was hopeful it would resume as the U.S. works with other countries to reopen to travelers. Johnson also said the airport is looking to get flights to Salt Lake City again. Board member Mike Johnson explained that flights there would allow for connectivity to the Pacific Northwest.

Burkes said airfares rose throughout the summer as travel demand increased, but they have since started to fall as carriers try to fill open seats on airplanes. Compared to August 2019, traffic was down about 30% in August and was trending down. But he said as of last week, the numbers have started to rise, and so far through September, were down about 23%.

“It’s clearly started to bounce back…A few football games can change these numbers,” he said. “We’ve had record highs since the pandemic in terms of the number of passengers going through TSA checkpoints.”

The airport recently added an amenity that offers business travelers a private space to work and recharge their batteries.

MAG USA and Jabbrrbox introduced Escape Pods as they work to expand the existing network of 16 pods at eight U.S. airports. An additional 50 Escape Pods will be installed at U.S. airports by this fall, and the existing network will be co-branded as Escape Pods — part of the Jabbrrbox network, according to a news release. The partnership between MAG USA and Jabbrrbox allows for the Escape Pods to become an extension of the Escape Lounges brand, a product of MAG USA.

In mid-August, two Escape Pods were installed at XNA near Auntie Anne’s in the A concourse of the terminal, said Alex English, public relations and marketing specialist for XNA.

“In the past, several passengers have requested access to meeting rooms to work on various tasks while waiting for a flight,” English said. “These Escape Pods help fill that need for business travelers.”

She added that passenger feedback on the Escape Pods has been positive.

According to the release, the technology-equipped private spaces are soundproof, offer a high-speed Wi-Fi connection and include a 24-inch screen to allow users to interact with the Jabbrrbox app to track their flight, adjust the comfort of the environment or take a business video call. English noted the cost to use one of the Escape Pods ranges from $10 for 15 minutes to $60 for 120 minutes.

“In a post-pandemic world, as passengers’ needs are constantly shifting, the demand for technology-enabled private space is at a premium,” said Jeremy Jennings, co-founder and co-CEO of Jabbrrbox. “The fact that we can be a revenue-generating amenity for an airport is a win-win for the passenger experience and the airport authority.”

XNA will receive a percentage of sales after Jabbrrbox has recovered the cost of the Escape Pods, English said. The contract expires Feb. 28, 2023, with options for two additional one-year extensions.