XNA enplanements exceeding benchmark year by nearly 10%

by Jeff Della Rosa ([email protected]) 1,142 views 

Northwest Arkansas National Airport (XNA) in Highfill continues to exceed 2019 enplanement numbers. So far this year, enplanements or passengers flying out are up about 10% compared to the same period in 2019.

On Tuesday (June 20), XNA CEO Aaron Burkes explained the enplanement numbers to the XNA Board of Directors.

“We’re still benchmarking to 2019 [before COVID-19] because that’s still our last great normal year,” Burkes said. “I’m excited about the fact that looks like we will be able to begin benchmarking to 2023 going forward.”

In May, enplanements rose by 8.8% to 90,403 from 83,072 in the same month last year. May enplanements were up 5.3% from 85,892 in May 2019.

“June looks really solid,” Burkes said. “[Walmart] shareholders was phenomenal. We think our enplanements are going to be really good because of that.”

On June 2, XNA throughput at the security checkpoint rose to a record 5,025 – the first time the throughput has exceeded 5,000 people in a day. So far this year, enplanements are up 20.3% to 375,312 from 312,010 over the same period last year. Compared to the same period in 2019, enplanements were 342,927. For 2019, enplanements were 922,533.

Burkes was unsure if XNA will reach 1 million enplanements this year as it’s not forecasted, and it depends on the economy. Still, the long-predicted recession might not happen this year.

XNA officials also discussed the ongoing pilot shortage that’s increasing pilot pay and affecting ticket prices. However, fuel costs have declined, and airfares fell by 13.4% in May compared to the same month last year. Burkes noted that airfares are about the price they were 10 years ago.

Burkes also compared XNA’s airfares to other airports, such as Tulsa International Airport. He said the gap between the two airports has narrowed over the years, but the average ticket price remains about $100 more at XNA. The average ticket price is $527 at XNA compared to $428 at Tulsa.

Burkes said with about half of XNA’s passengers being business travelers that its airfares will always be higher. He said business travelers often book flights shortly before the flights when airfares are higher, driving up the average price.

“It’s kind of a double-edged sword,” said Andrew Branch, chief operating officer for XNA. “The more successful we are at filling the planes, which is the goal, the prices will go up.”

Branch expects its targeted marketing efforts will help to drive demand, putting upward pressure on pricing. He added that airlines are filling the planes at the prices they’re charging.

Burkes said the fuller planes have allowed XNA to have more direct destinations or nonstop flights. XNA has 22 direct destinations, which is 50% higher than in January 2019. He noted that travelers are willing to pay more for nonstop flights.

“If we are succeeding at filling the planes with the kind of business travel that we have, I think it’ll [airfares] stay high,” Branch said. “If you see the fares dropping, it’ll probably be because our market is not doing as well… I think we’re going to remain marginally higher based on our success.”

He explained that airline planners look to give the airport more planes and larger planes if they are being filled up at higher yields. If they aren’t being filled up or the yields are down, the planes will no longer come.

“This is a zero-sum thing,” he added. “They only have so many pilots and planes. And if another market can charge an extra $10, they get that plane, and we don’t.”

Higher airfares help XNA to recruit more routes and airlines, said Burkes, noting the balance between lower and higher pricing.

“We have the leisure travelers who really are price-conscious,” he said. “We have the businesses who really want those direct destinations, which means the yields are going to have to be a little higher, the fares are going to have to be a little higher for that to be justified… We’re a pretty small market; To have the number of direct destinations we have is pretty incredible. But that only works because the fares are what they are.”

In May, enplanements at Clinton National Airport in Little Rock, the largest commercial airport in Arkansas, rose by 8% to 104,496 from 96,722 in the same month last year. So far this year, enplanements are up 13% to 418,800 from 370,662 over the same period last year. Before May, the airport previously had more than 100,000 enplanements in October 2019 (101,383). The airport had four months in 2019 with more than 100,000 enplanements. May 2019 enplanements were 108,538.

Enplanements at Fort Smith Regional Airport, the state’s third-largest commercial airport, declined by 7.9% to 5,306 in May from 5,761 in the same month last year. So far this year, enplanements have fallen by 3.5% to 22,723 from 23,545 in the same period last year.