XNA enplanements might surpass Clinton National in 8 years

by Jeff Della Rosa ([email protected]) 2,152 views 

Northwest Arkansas National Airport (XNA) in Highfill is expected to return to pre-pandemic enplanement levels in 2023, barring a recession, according to multiple projections. Also, a new federal forecast shows XNA’s enplanements are expected to exceed Clinton National Airport in Little Rock in eight years.

XNA CEO Aaron Burkes presented the projections to the XNA board of directors on Tuesday (March 14). S&P and Moody’s have projected U.S. enplanements to reach 2019 levels this year. The downside case is that enplanements would reach 95% of 2019 levels. Based on this, XNA enplanements would be projected to be between 876,000 and 922,000 for 2023.

In February, XNA enplanements rose by 30% to 63,658 from 48,942 in the same month in 2022. Through February, enplanements increased by 28.6% to 126,012, from 97,960. Enplanements so far this year are up 9.6% from the same period in 2019, which XNA officials have used as a benchmark to show recovery from the pandemic.

Burkes said XNA passenger traffic through the Transportation Security Administration checkpoint is up more than 20% so far in March from the same month in 2019. He doesn’t expect the throughput to reflect as strongly in the March enplanements but added that he’s seeing no waning in XNA’s enplanement recovery.

A forecast by the Federal Aviation Administration shows that XNA will surpass the enplanement levels of Clinton National Airport in Little Rock in 2031.

The state’s largest commercial airport had yet to post February enplanements, but its January enplanements rose by 25.2% to 73,608 from 58,804 in the same month in 2022. The enplanements were down by 4.2% from 76,837 in the same month in 2019. Its 2022 enplanements (1.01 million) were down nearly 10% from 2019 levels (1.12 million).

In February, enplanements at Fort Smith Regional Airport, the third largest commercial airport in Arkansas, rose by 23.5% to 3,967 from 3,213 in the same month in 2022. Through February, enplanements rose by 24.2% to 8,159 from 6,570 in the same period in 2022. Its 2022 enplanements (61,719) were down 35.5% from 2019 levels (95,670).

Burkes also provided an update on ticket prices compared to peer airports. He said the average airfare is about $488 for a roundtrip at XNA. By comparison, it’s $456 at the peer airports. He noted that XNA’s average is down from $551 in 2018.

He said XNA likely would not close the gap completely compared to peer airports because XNA is business traveler-focused, and these travelers often buy tickets at the last minute when ticket prices are higher. He added that business travel remains down about 20% from 2019 levels, but this might be “the new normal.”

XNA board members also discussed the plans for the airport access road. Board member Philip Taldo, who’s also a state highway commissioner, said plans are complete for the 3.4-mile road from Arkansas Highway 612 to the airport’s south entrance along Arkansas Highway 264. Right-of-way acquisition is nearly completed. Officials said construction would take two to three years to complete once work starts, and federal documents show the cost estimate was $94 million.

Taldo said an announcement on the project might come in early 2024. An announcement on the extension of Highway 612, or the U.S. Highway 412 bypass, is expected before the end of 2023. Highway 612 is set to be extended from Arkansas Highway 112 to U.S. Highway 412. Part of this extension project would need to be completed to reach the interchange for the access road. Taldo noted that work on the access road and Highway 612 extension would take place roughly at the same time.