Northwest Arkansas National Airport (XNA) in Highfill might recover to 2019 enplanement levels slower than some industry analysts have projected amid a looming recession.
On Wednesday (Dec. 14), CEO Aaron Burkes explained to the XNA Board of Directors that the Great Recession led to about eight years of no enplanement growth. For 2022, Burkes expects enplanements to reach about 835,000, or about 90% of 2019 levels. Enplanements comprise passengers flying out of the airport.
For 2023, XNA is projecting enplanements of 830,000. Still, industry analysts, including S&P Global and Moody’s, have projected that enplanements will reach 2019 levels in 2023. S&P Global projected enplanements to be flat in 2024 and 2025.
“A survey this week made headlines that 98% of all CEOs are predicting a recession in the next year,” Burkes said. “Who knows if it will happen, but it’s a threat that’s on people’s radar.”
Burkes explained that the pilot shortage had impacted seating capacity. He said the lack of about 12,000 pilots would take years to be resolved. The plane shortage also has affected seating capacity, and he noted recent news articles about the billions and billions of dollars in plane orders to try to increase the capacity. With larger planes, airlines can address the pilot shortage issue.
Another issue is that airfares are up about 37% from this time last year. “It’s leading to almost record profitability right now for the airlines,” Burkes added. “They’re making tons of money.”
Also, he said business travel has yet to rebound to 2019 levels. It remains about 20% below 2019 levels and reached a plateau. “Many experts are predicting that, again, the whole Zoom phenomenon… that will lead to long-term trend changes in business travel that you’re just not going to ever see a full rebound relative to GDP.”
Between January and October, XNA enplanements increased by 43.3% to 698,244, from 487,094 in the same period last year. Over the same period, enplanements at Clinton National Airport in Little Rock increased by 21.8% to 835,392 from 685,840. And, over the same period, enplanements at Fort Smith Regional Airport rose by 35.8% to 51,940 from 38,229.
Compared with pre-pandemic levels, 2019 enplanements at the previous airports were 922,533, 1.12 million and 95,670, respectively.
In November, enplanements at Clinton National Airport rose by 8.7% to 90,781, from 83,480 in November 2021. November enplanements at Fort Smith Regional Airport increased by 29.7% to 5,823, from 4,489 in November 2021. XNA’s November enplanements have yet to become available.
XNA has six airlines and offers more than 22 direct flights across the United States.