XNA enplanements continue to improve; hotel, lounge in works

by Jeff Della Rosa ([email protected]) 2,430 views 

Northwest Arkansas National Airport (XNA) in Highfill continues to report an uptick in enplanements amid the COVID-19 pandemic as officials look to add amenities, including a hotel and lounge.

On Wednesday (Feb. 23), XNA CEO Aaron Burkes said February enplanements were tracking down 12.5%, from the same month in 2019. In January, enplanements rose by 123% to 48,748, from 21,838 in the same month in 2021, but down 13.9% from 2019 levels. XNA officials use 2019 as a benchmark to show the airport’s recovery from the pandemic.

XNA is projecting 750,000 enplanements for 2022, with 25% attributed to low-cost carriers. In 2021, enplanements rose to 621,942, from 360,133 in 2020, and reaching about 67% of 2019 levels.

Burkes noted enplanements attributed to low-cost carriers rose to a high of 18% in 2021. Those enplanements are attributed more to leisure travelers.

“We do see business travel coming back,” he said. “The airlines themselves are predicting that business travel is going to come back. We’re already … 60-70%, according to some of the estimates, of business travel back.

“For us locally, we think that it’s going to be coming back with a vengeance … starting in March … with Walmart offices opening up. That’s obviously a big one, allowing the vendors to potentially enter meetings and things like that. I think that will be very important to us.”

Also Wednesday, officials discussed plans to seek proposals to add a hotel near the terminal and a common-use lounge within the terminal.

XNA staff and board members discussed multiple site options for the hotel. One was to place it adjacent to the existing parking garage. The plan would to be to connect the hotel to the garage to allow for covered walkway into the terminal. Other options included placing the hotel southeast of the terminal at varying distances.

Andrew Branch, chief business development officer for XNA, said the hotel adjacent to the parking garage could be up to five stories tall, but those to the southeast of the terminal might only be up to three stories tall. He said those further from terminal would likely require shuttles to and from the terminal.

Branch said the airport will seek proposals from hoteliers in April or May and noted that hotels will be built either adjacent to or on airport property in Fort Smith and Little Rock.

Staff will seek proposals for the lounge in March, Branch said. The proposals might be presented to the board in May. The proposed location is after the security checkpoint in a 3,600-square-foot carpeted area adjacent to the mother’s room, which is centrally located in the terminal.

In other airport business, XNA officials welcomed new board member John Tanner, who leads the customer experience team for Walmart. Recently, Bentonville City Council appointed Tanner to serve the remainder of Brian Burke’s term on the board. The term runs through Dec. 31, 2024. Burke recently resigned as board chairman to become general counsel and director of compliance for XNA. Jim Krall, vice president for university advancement for John Brown University in Siloam Springs, was named board chairman.