One constant at Northwest Arkansas National Airport is its ever-changing nature.
The increasing passengers, new flights, runway repairs, a parking deck, an expanded security checkpoint and terminal expansions to create more space for more planes are among the happenings. That all occurred over the past 25 years amid the 2001 terrorist attacks that crippled the aviation industry, airline bankruptcies and mergers, a massive economic downturn in 2008 and the COVID-19 pandemic.
XNA marks its 25th anniversary this week, and there’s a terrific story in the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette about it. Sunday’s newspaper covers the beginning of the planning in 1990 to the airport’s opening in 1998.
It’s all worth reading if you’re interested in how the Northwest Arkansas Council and other committed leaders worked for years to make the airport come to exist in Northwest Arkansas. Uvalde Lindsey and Scott Van Laningham, who were instrumental in the airport’s development, participated in a podcast with Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporter Ron Wood about the project.
FareFlightNWA won’t repeat the newspaper’s coverage, but it will share a bit about XNA during its the anniversary week. Here’s what we’d note about the only commercial service airport in the region.
Airport access road
The Arkansas Department of Transportation is scheduled to open construction bids on a four-lane airport access road on Jan. 5. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where the roadway’s cost doesn’t exceed $120 million.
It’s a project that’s been in the works for more than two decades.
An Arkansas Democrat-Gazette article published in 2002 referred to the widely discussed airport access road as a $45 million project. Now, 21 years later, the highway that’s needed is half as long and is certain to cost more than twice as much.
An explanation is in order.
The original airport road was going to be a two-lane highway from XNA’s south entrance to a spot near Lowell where it would connect to what’s now Interstate 49. It’s 8 miles between the two connections.
The need for an 8-mile access road vanished when the state Transportation Department hired a company to build Arkansas 612, a 4-mile portion of the future U.S. 412 Bypass of Springdale. Building that much was $100 million, and it gets a 4-lane, divided highway connection four miles closer to XNA.
There’s no longer a need to connect the airport road to I-49.
Kansas City and Little Rock?
Did you know XNA once offered nonstop flights to Kansas City and Little Rock? It’s true.
XNA has a long list of nonstop destinations today, but its list of destinations that didn’t work out is long, too. They include Cincinnati (Delta Air Lines); Salt Lake City (Delta); Punta Gorda (Allegiant Air); Austin (Allegiant); San Antonio (Breeze Airways); Detroit (Northwest Airlines); Memphis (Northwest); Kansas City (U.S. Airways); Little Rock (U.S. Airways); Cleveland (Continental Express); Newark (United Airlines); San Francisco (United); St. Louis (American Airlines); Philadelphia (American); and Raleigh (American).
The reasons certain flights are no longer available aren’t all related to what’s happening in Northwest Arkansas or a lack of passengers boarding the flights. High fuel prices doomed some of those flights, including the daily trip to Raleigh that stopped in 2008. Airline mergers, airline bankruptcies, shifting airline priorities and the pandemic were other route-ending factors outside of Northwest Arkansas’ control.
An individual’s decision to fly from XNA provides an economic benefit to Northwest Arkansas. That benefit doesn’t occur when a person who lives in the region chooses to fly from more distant airports.
The best information about the airport’s economic impact comes from a report called The Economic Impact of Arkansas Airports, a document published by the Arkansas Department of Aeronautics. That report used 2016 data and estimated XNA’s impact at $463.3 million each year. The report said that impact is responsible for about 5,800 of the jobs in the region.
While some of those jobs are at XNA (the people who work for the airlines, the rental car companies and the airport itself, for example), many of those jobs aren’t anywhere close to the airport. For every job that exists at XNA, there are hundreds of little parts of other jobs that are made possible across the region (at restaurants, banks, real estate companies, electric utilities, etc.).
The economic impact of XNA is far more now, and it doesn’t take a new study to know that. The airport’s number of passengers in 2016 (700,000 a year) is about 40% less than it was this year. If that $463.3 million is increased by 40%, the airport’s impact climbs to almost $650 million.
After its 1998 opening, the airport took about 10.5 years to get to 5 million enplanements. That’s the number of people who board flights and leave from XNA.
It took eight more years to board the next 5 million.
With 14.6 million passengers since its opening, XNA is on pace to board its 15-millionth person in March 2024. That’ll mean the airport achieved its third set of 5 million people in a little less than seven years.
XNA opened Nov. 1, 1998, and its administrators started talking about needing more parking less than 50 days later. No kidding.
Some of those additional parking areas that were added in 2004 became known as the economy lots, and spots initially sold for $4 a day. They were up to $5 by 2013 and $6 by 2016. Economy parking goes for $8 now.
Short-term parking at the airport’s opening was $9, a price so low that a high number of one- to two-week travelers were comfortable paying the amount. It really clogged up the short-term lot. Prices were bumped up to deter those long-term parkers.
It’s $24 a day now.