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New federal data shows just how much the Arkansas airport, built with business travelers in mind, is looking like its pre-pandemic self.

Volaire Aviation Consulting’s review of U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics data shows Northwest Arkansas National Airport’s top destinations in the second quarter this year were New York and Chicago, both core business destinations.

New York and Chicago were also the No. 1 and No. 2 destinations from XNA in 2019, the last full year before the COVID-19 pandemic turned air travel on its head and caused corporate American to keep thousands of business travelers grounded.

With air travel curtailed at so many businesses in Northwest Arkansas and nationwide in 2020 and much of 2021, leisure travel led to new places sitting atop XNA’s most frequent destinations list. Orlando/Sanford rose to No. 1 last year, and low-cost carrier Allegiant Air, which caters to leisure travelers, carried most of those travelers.

But the return of business trips is now obvious as travel to cities such as New York, Chicago, Dallas/Fort Worth and Atlanta is increasing at XNA at a far faster rate than it is to leading leisure places such as Orlando, Las Vegas and Destin.

No. 1 New York saw the biggest increase among the business-heavy destination. The Big Apple saw 45 people a day travel to the city in the second quarter last year; it was 164 a day in this year’s second quarter.

In the same time periods, Chicago rose from seeing 53 people a day to 126.

Fares Up for Business

The federal data shows the cost of domestic trips averaged $490 roundtrip during the second quarter this year; the average was $374 in the second quarter last year. Fares went way down during the pandemic as airlines scrambled to get the attention of the people who continued to fly.

That’s why many airports continue to compare their pricing to 2019. With that in mind, XNA’s domestic fare is $2 more expensive than in the second quarter 2019.

Average roundtrip fares from XNA to several business destinations were exceedingly high. The average cost of a roundtrip flight during the quarter to San Francisco ($816), Seattle ($810), Philadelphia ($746) and Boston ($640) were among the most expensive. That flight to San Francisco is $294 more expensive than it was three years ago.

Flights to New York and Chicago weren’t that over-the-top expensive. Roundtrips to New York sold for $502; Chicago’s cost was $438. Both fares were less expensive than they were in 2019 ($540 and 594)

What’s not clear by looking at airfare data is exactly what’s caused places such as San Francisco to become so much more expensive than they were in 2019. While fuel expenses were far higher in this year’s second quarter than it was in 2019, and that’s one factor, it’s also possible that business travelers purchased more last-minute fares than they did in 2019. Those late buys are almost always more expensive than airfare purchased more than three weeks in advance of a trip’s start.

News accounts suggest the increased fares are likely to persist in 2023.

Affordable Options

Yet there were places and airlines to fly on the cheap.

Roundtrips to Tampa, which swelled in popularity after Breeze Airways and Allegiant Air started flying there nonstop last year, averaged $200 during this year’s second quarter. The cost of a seat on a plane to Tampa in the second quarter of 2019 averaged $484.

Trips to Destin ($156 roundtrip), Punta Gorda ($206), Nashville ($230) and New Orleans ($298) were among the most affordable places to fly from XNA in this year’s second quarter. Allegiant offers nonstop service to the first three; Breeze goes nonstop to New Orleans.

While affordable fares like those to Nashville and New Orleans can lead to more travel to a destination, having a nonstop option is a huge factor, too. It’s normal for any airport to see trips to a new destination with a nonstop option to go way up, and XNA is consistent with that pattern.

Just 17 people a day traveled to Tampa/St. Petersburg in the second quarter 2021, and it grew to about 80 a day in the first and second quarters this year. Allegiant and Breeze, which started flying to the Tampa metro in mid-2021, offer cheap fares and now dominate travel to the area.

It’s also helpful in terms of prices that Breeze and Allegiant are competing for the Tampa-bound travelers. Competition often causes airlines to charge less in a bit to get the attention of travelers.

What will be interesting is monitoring the new competition from XNA and how that impacts airfare for those headed to the Phoenix metro. Allegiant Air already offers seasonal flights to a secondary airport in that area, and now Breeze Airways and American Airlines plan to offer nonstop flights to Phoenix Sky Harbor, the city’s primary airport, starting in February.