A surge in the competition for leisure travelers’ attention worked to Northwest Arkansas’ advantage for a year. Now, high fuel prices and a national pilot shortage are working against the region.
When Allegiant Air announced in February last year that it would fly nonstop to Austin, it kicked off a remarkable year that ended with 10 new destinations in the fold at Northwest Arkansas National Airport.
How great was that? In short, pretty great.
XNA officials celebrate any year in which a single destination is added. Two is terrific; three is gangbusters. But 10? No one even considered that possibility.
In the middle of a pandemic that crushed business travel at XNA and nationwide, Allegiant Air, Breeze Airways and Frontier Airlines added flights like crazy in a play for its leisure travelers.
Adding during the pandemic
XNA, in fact, scored 10 new places to fly nonstop while seeing its number of passengers go from 922,000 in 2019 all the way down to 360,000 in 2020 because of the pandemic. The pandemic began affecting air travel in the U.S. in early 2020.
Although the pandemic remained, the wide availability of the COVID-19 vaccines and federally required masking on planes gave people enough comfort that travel from XNA increased to 600,000 in 2021. There’s optimism about how many travelers will board flights this year. It could top 850,000, but the road ahead isn’t rosy.
While fewer people are concerned about the pandemic, high fuel prices and the pilot shortage have airlines cutting their low-performing routes.
San Antonio goes away
There was a major change this week at XNA as Breeze Airways decided it will no longer offer its twice-a-week flights from XNA to San Antonio after May 30. It was among several changes announced by the airline, impacting airports nationwide.
That came after Breeze in April decided to make a change with its flights to New Orleans. The airline will fly the route this summer, pause it in September and then return it to service on Oct. 6.
San Antonio was a focus city for Breeze at its start last summer, and the Texas city welcomed nonstops from Oklahoma City, Tulsa and XNA. After Breeze ended the flights from the Oklahoma airports in November, it was more than a little uncomfortable for XNA to be the only airport feeding passengers into San Antonio.
Allegiant and Frontier have made changes in recent weeks, too.
Frontier won’t be flying to Orlando International this summer, but its schedule shows it returning Aug. 12.
Allegiant won’t fly its nonstops to Austin or Houston Hobby. The Austin flight returns to the schedule in September; there’s no sign of Houston Hobby on future schedules.
Las Vegas changes
Allegiant at times will increase how often it flies to a city during the summer months, and twice-a-week flights from XNA to Destin will change to almost daily through mid-August.
In that same way, it had increased how often it would fly to Las Vegas this summer to four times a week, but it’s now backed away from that plan. It’s now back to its typical pattern of twice-a-week service from XNA, departing each Thursday and Sunday.
Frontier Airlines started flying to Las Vegas in August, and it’s continuing that, offering nonstop flights on Mondays and Fridays.
In 2021, Las Vegas was XNA’s No. 5 destination behind Orlando/Sanford, Denver, Dallas/Fort Worth and Los Angeles.