XNA sees record-breaking growth; plans for new routes, carriers discussed

by Jeff Della Rosa ([email protected]) 816 views 

In a recent Onward Ozarks webinar, aviation officials discussed plans for new routes and carriers at Northwest Arkansas National Airport (XNA) in Highfill as the airport continues to exceed passenger numbers from 2023, a record year.

From January to May, enplanements, or passengers flying out, increased by 11% to 416,548 from 375,312 in the same period last year. In May, enplanements rose by 9.9% to 99,357 from 90,403 in the same month the previous year. Officials recently projected XNA would have more than 100,000 enplanements in June, the first month to exceed this mark.

In 2021, Springdale-based nonprofit Northwest Arkansas Council launched the Onward Ozarks speaker series to share news, events and other information with area residents. Randy Wilburn, founder and host of the podcast “I Am Northwest Arkansas,” is the series host and moderator.

Webinar participants included Andrew Branch, chief operating officer at XNA, and Edward Shelswell-White, chief vision and customer officer at Signal Aviation Consulting. Branch said XNA started working with the consultant several years ago to help airport officials gather better data and information about airlines.

“The No. 1 question…our airport management has gotten since XNA opened is when is Southwest Airlines coming,” Branch said. “We still don’t have any updates on that…Hopefully, someday.”

If Southwest Airlines started offering service at XNA, Shelswell-White said he’d expect some increase in traffic and reduced fares. “But not probably on the order that people historically think where they come in and the fares drop 75% and traffic grows 800-fold.”

He said it used to happen in the 1990s, but the convergence of costs, including fuel and labor, has affected carriers’ cost advantage and lessened the impact on fare prices.

Branch said XNA’s big coverage gap is in the West and Northwest. Passengers have requested flights to Seattle, San Franciso, and Salt Lake City; in the East, they have asked for flights to Boston.

Branch said airlines add new routes based on passenger traffic through existing hubs and the business the routes would generate if offered.

“We just haven’t had any airlines willing to step up and offer those routes,” Branch said. “Phoenix was a big one for us. American (Airlines) started offering that last year. That route has been very successful for them.”

He explained that airlines measure traffic by a route’s passenger volume to and from a destination. They want to fill the airplanes for each flight, and they determine flight frequency based on passenger volume to a destination.

Andrew Branch

Branch said American Airlines has eight to nine daily flights to Dallas, a hub for flights to other destinations. Flights to Tampa, Fla., comprise about 99 passengers per day. However, passengers flying to Seattle are about 30 per day, which isn’t enough to fill an airplane daily.

“We overestimate, as Northwest Arkansas, how many people travel from here to, say, a Seattle or a Boston or San Franciso,” Branch said. “It’s just not as many people as you think. There are a lot of people every week, but it’s anecdotal. When you look at it, it’s 30-40 people a day. It’s not enough to support a daily flight.”

XNA uses cell phone data to track Northwest Arkansas residents who leave the area to take a flight at another airport in the region. The U.S. Department of Transportation also offers data that tracks this, known as leakage. However, Branch said the cell phone data is more accurate.

“There is some leakage to Tulsa and Kansas City,” Branch said. “Those are probably the two big ones.”

Shelswell-White said XNA captures about 80% to 85% of its market. Tulsa receives the most leakage. He added that Los Angeles International Airport only retains about 90% of its traffic.

“Even an airport that big and that successful, still, you can’t keep everybody,” Shelswell-White said. “XNA isn’t quite at that level, but it’s close.”

Branch said that XNA’s goal is to capture 100% of its market. He noted that while this might not be realistic, the airplanes that fly out of XNA are full. So, some of the leakage might comprise passengers who find an airplane with empty seats at another airport.

Other webinar topics included the ongoing projects at the airport to accommodate growth and the connector road currently under construction.