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Northwest Arkansas National Airport continues its pattern of being the airport of choice for 70% of its travelers who live closest to the airport, a review of federal data shows.

The study, completed last month by consultant Volaire Aviation Consulting, analyzed more than 26,500 airline tickets purchased in 2023 by people who live in XNA’s so-called “catchment area.” The area includes most parts of eight counties in Northwest Arkansas, three counties in Southwest Missouri and two in eastern Oklahoma.

In the aviation industry, it’s considered “leakage” when a person who lives closest to one airport chooses to fly from a more distant airport. Passengers sometimes drive to those more distant airports to take advantage of nonstop flights that aren’t available at the closest airport, or because airfare is less expensive.

Information about the study was shared Tuesday with members of the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport Authority.

Economic benefit to Arkansas

The 70% of people who fly from XNA create a positive economic impact for the region that isn’t realized when a person flies from Tulsa, Kansas City or a commercial airport outside the region.

Those positive impacts include XNA receiving what’s called a passenger facility charge (PFC), and it amounts to $4.50. That fee is part of the cost of an airline ticket. The fee helps support XNA’s operations.

Additionally, fees paid by people who use XNA parking or who make food purchases in the terminal help create jobs in Arkansas.

Leakage to Tulsa

XNA as recently as 2017 kept just 61% of its travelers. Tulsa International Airport was the biggest beneficiary of high leakage, capturing about 20% of all air travelers who lived in XNA’s catchment area, the 2017 study showed.

For XNA, the numbers have improved as more nonstop flights have become available.

While one of those 2023 additions was a daily American Airlines nonstop to Phoenix, it’s expansions by XNA’s low-cost carriers in recent years that play a significant role in the reduced leakage. Low-cost carriers Allegiant Air, Frontier Airlines and Breeze Airways go largely to vacation destinations, and those flights routinely cost less than $300 roundtrip. For many travelers, that price point is attractive.

Most of XNA’s leakage still goes to Tulsa, but it fell to 13% last year, the study showed. It amounted to 464 people a day choosing Tulsa over XNA.

Another 198 people a day (5%) drive from the catchment area to Kansas City to fly, and smaller numbers of people drive to Dallas/Fort Worth (3%), Springfield-Branson (3%) and Little Rock (2%).

It’s important to understand some of the people leaking to other airports live in XNA’s catchment area, but the driving time to the more distant airports isn’t all that different. Grove in Oklahoma, for example, is in the XNA catchment area. From Grove, it’s a 66-minute drive to XNA and 80 minutes  to Tulsa.

Keeping Tampa passengers

XNA keeps about 70% of the travelers in its catchment area, but it does far better when it comes to some of the airport’s top destinations.

It keeps 90% of travelers flying to the Tampa/St. Petersburg metro, and it does well with passengers traveling to Chicago (89%), Charlotte (88%), Atlanta (87%), Orlando/Sanford (84%), Washington, D.C. (81%), New York (80%) and DFW (79%).

In just about all of those cases, the availability of nonstop flights is helpful to limiting leakage.

XNA, for example, has four nonstops a week to the Tampa/St. Pete metro (two each on Allegiant and Breeze), and Tulsa has just two Allegiant flights. That contributes to that lofty 90% retention.

In just the opposite way, Tulsa captures 53% of the people in XNA area who are headed to Salt Lake City. That’s because Delta Air Lines offers two nonstops a day to Salt Lake from Tulsa; XNA doesn’t have any nonstops to Salt Lake.

Similarly, XNA keeps just 55% of the people who travel to Las Vegas, and Tulsa captures most of the rest (31%). While Allegiant has twice-a-week nonstops to Las Vegas from XNA and the service has been available for more than a decade, Tulsa has two daily flights on Southwest Airlines to Las Vegas and twice-a-week Allegiant service.