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After seeing leisure travelers provide a bit of a traffic boost at Northwest Arkansas National Airport in June and July, the airport saw fewer passengers in August.

Statistics shared by XNA this week show 25,068 passengers boarded commercial flights at the airport in August. It was about 700 fewer flyers than July, but it’s normal for August boardings to trail both June and July. Those two months are often the busiest of the year.

With the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to slow air travel nationwide, what’s not known is when business travelers return to the skies in big numbers. That return will be critical at XNA, an airport that relies more on business travel than many airports across the nation.

There is usually significant business travel at XNA during the summer but the pandemic slowed that. It often increases in the fall, but that may not occur this year as many companies in Northwest Arkansas continue to limit the air travel of their employees.

American Airlines, the airport’s dominant carrier, didn’t fly as much in August. Soon after the pandemic arrived, the airline limited its flying to just its hubs in Dallas/Fort Worth, Chicago O’Hare and Charlotte, but it added nonstop flights to Miami and Washington Reagan in July. The flights to Miami and Reagan ceased again in August. That factored into American’s 8.2% decrease in passengers last month.

Delta Air Lines, which is currently flying three times a day from XNA to Atlanta and has paused its daily flights to Minneapolis/St. Paul and New York LaGuardia, saw 3,736 passengers in August. In comparison, July brought the airline just 2,393. At least a portion of that increase can be attributed to the airline increasing how often it’s flying to Atlanta, creating more time convenience for travelers.

Allegiant Air, which had been the airport’s second busiest carrier throughout much of the summer as its focus is on leisure destinations like Destin, Orlando and Las Vegas, took a step back in August. With 3,368 passengers on 47 flights, the low-cost carrier returned to its usual spot as the airport’s fourth busiest airline.

What’s ahead for the rest of the year isn’t known, but the Northwest Arkansas National Airport Authority Board of Directors at a meeting earlier this month tried to gain some insight into how quickly XNA can return to the high passenger numbers witnessed in 2019.

Consultant Mead & Hunt recommended to the board that it should anticipate roughly 16,600 passengers a month for the remainder of the year. That recommendation was based on XNA’s June enplanements and the assumption that it roughly represents what should occur for the remainder of the year.

If the 16,600 proves true, XNA will see just short of 300,000 passengers this year. XNA is ahead of that pace, though, with more than 25,000 passengers in July and August, and it’s currently at 247,574.

What’s certain is the airport will fall far short of the 922,000 passengers who boarded flights at XNA last year. The consultant suggested XNA won’t see 900,000 passengers again until 2022 at the earliest, but it could be as late as 2025.

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