Enplanements at Northwest Arkansas National Airport (XNA) in Highfill continue to rise and are expected to eclipse 2019 numbers as airport officials look to develop plans to attract low-cost carrier Southwest Airlines in 2024. Enplanements are the number of passengers who fly out of the airport.
In the Tuesday (Dec. 12) XNA Board of Directors meeting, airport CEO Aaron Burkes said he expects XNA enplanements to reach between 980,000 and 983,000 this year. He noted that the airport’s 2024 enplanement projection of 925,000 might be conservative if the economy makes a soft landing. But if it worsens, the numbers might be lower than expected.
“What we’ve seen historically is when the economy goes down, enplanements go down,” Burkes said. “Look back at 2006 to 2013; we had basically flat enplanements for that many years…Enplanements are very dependent on the economy.”
Between January and October, enplanements rose by 18.8% to 826,857 from 696,145 in the same period last year. Compared to 2019, enplanements are up by 7.6% from 768,650. Enplanements were a record 922,533 in 2019.
XNA is the second-largest commercial airport in the state. Following are comparisons to the largest and third-largest commercial airport in Arkansas: Between January and October, enplanements at Clinton National Airport in Little Rock rose by 11.2% to 929,171 from 835,392. Over the same period, enplanements at Fort Smith Regional Airport declined by 2.2% to 50,821 from 51,940.
Burkes said the mixed outlook projections in the airline industry led officials to make a middle-of-the-road projection for XNA’s 2024 enplanements forecast.
“I think that there’s an optimistic case for us, obviously, to break 1 million next year as close as we are this year,” Burkes said. “But things have to go right.”
Andrew Branch, chief operating officer for XNA, said the airport will focus on airline route retention and recruitment next year. It will work with Sky Synergy to develop a plan to attract Southwest Airlines to XNA. Plans include establishing an advisory committee meeting quarterly and comprising interested community leaders.
Also, XNA board members approved plans to install a 2,300-square-foot lounge after the security checkpoint in the terminal. The Escape Lounges lounge will have a kitchen, bar, food and beverage area, and nearly 50 seats. The walk-up rate for lounge access is $45, but discounts are available. It’s expected to open in mid-November. Escape Lounges is a brand of CAVU, a subsidiary of U.K.-based Manchester Airports Group. In the United States, CAVU has 15 Escape Lounges, with five in the works.
In other business, Brian Burke, general counsel for XNA, said the city of Highfill has filed suit claiming a new state law is unconstitutional and is seeking an injunction to prevent XNA from detaching from the city. In September, XNA board members voted 12-0 to detach from Highfill. The move came after a new state law allowed XNA to detach without being annexed into another city.
Burke said a hearing on XNA’s motion to dismiss the case is set for Jan. 8 in Benton County Circuit Court, Division 6. Judge Doug Schrantz is assigned to the case. Highfill is being represented by Little Rock firm Kutak Rock. XNA is being represented by Little Rock firm Mitchell, Williams, Selig, Gates & Woodyard. XNA has yet to file for detachment as it’s awaiting the outcome of the case.