Few like-sized airports in middle America can match the impressive collection of nonstop destinations available from Northwest Arkansas National Airport.
Its nonstop flights include the unofficially standard list of ones you’d expect to see at an airport like XNA: Dallas/Fort Worth, Denver, Houston, Chicago O’Hare and Atlanta. Those destinations are the core.
There are then a dozen others that aren’t automatically on the list of destinations for airports with fewer than 1 million passengers a year. At XNA, those include Minneapolis/St. Paul, New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.
And, of course, XNA has a long list of twice-a-week flights offered by its low-cost carriers to places like Las Vegas, Orlando, New Orleans, Tampa and Nashville.
So what’s left for XNA? The short answer is plenty, but any discussion about which ones make sense should focus on whether they are likely to be profitable for the airline.
If the answer is that it can be profitable, then the next question is whether it’s likely to be more profitable than it would be at every other airport where that plane could be used. Airlines are in the driver’s seat, and they want to put their assets (planes) to work flying between the most profitable places, not just any profitable places.
Complicating the question for the airlines and for XNA administrators is the COVID-19 pandemic. Yes, it still matters, and airlines must decide if the future of business travel looks more like pre-COVID 2019, when things were going gangbusters in the airline industry, or post-COVID 2020, 2021 and 2022, when things remain a bit messy.
With all that as an ever-changing background, here’s our take (in no particular order) on three destinations that seem ripe for an airline that’s interested in providing nonstop flights to new places from XNA.
Phoenix Sky Harbor
XNA already has Allegiant Air flying twice a week to the nearby Phoenix/Mesa airport (and the seasonal service restarts Nov. 17), but it’s just not the same as the daily service to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport that could be provided by a legacy carrier such as American Airlines.
American remains XNA’s No. 1 carrier, and that’s been true since the day the airport opened in 1998, but it’s never tried nonstop flights to its hub at Sky Harbor.
The Phoenix area was XNA’s No. 12 destination in 2021 with about 36 people a day making the flight to Arizona. That’s up from 32 people in 2019. However, there’s an opportunity to add, as about 17 other people drive to airports in Tulsa or Springfield before flying to Arizona.
What an airline must consider is whether they’ll be able to capture some of those people who are choosing other airports and build on the 30-some passengers who use XNA because there’d be a nonstop available.
Moreover, if American started a Phoenix flight, some people would move from the Allegiant service to Phoenix/Mesa, but the majority need to be new travelers who may not have made the trip at all if not for the availability of the nonstop flight.
The Breeze Airways service to Tampa’s airport followed closely by Allegiant’s decision to fly nonstop to the St. Pete/Clearwater airport shows Northwest Arkansas travelers will embrace new nonstops.
With the nonstop available, about 75 people a day fly to Tampa or St. Pete/Clearwater. In 2019, before there were nonstop flights to Tampa or St. Pete/Clearwater, 20 people a day made the trip.
United Airlines first took off from XNA bound for San Francisco in 2015, and the airline ended the nonstop right after the COVID-19 pandemic started impacting U.S. air travel in early 2020.
Even without a nonstop, SFO remains an important business destination, and Bentonville-based Walmart operates a large e-commerce office in San Bruno, a city that abuts the SFO property. Moreover, SFO is a great place to make a last domestic stop before heading on to Asia.
XNA has a $500,000 federal grant specifically to re-establish the San Francisco nonstop. Any airline could offer the service and receive those funds.
United, which has one of its hubs in San Francisco, certainly makes sense with its history of serving the route. However, a story published just days ago about United’s decision to eliminate SFO flights from Oklahoma City, St. Louis and Detroit suggests this route via united may not be in the cards for XNA.
That leaves rapidly expanding Breeze Airways as a possibility. The airline provides nonstop flights from XNA to New Orleans and Tampa, and it provided a letter of support for XNA to get that $500,000 grant. Breeze established San Francisco as one of its primary destinations earlier this year, offering flights from the city to six destinations.
Just as Tampa saw traffic go way up when nonstop flights became available last year, travel to San Francisco went down when United stopped offering the daily flights. About 80 people a day make the trip to SFO from XNA in 2019; it was 26 a day last year.
The question United, Breeze or any other airline would need to ask regarding XNA: Will the SFO passengers return?
Salt Lake City
High fuel prices clobbered the airline industry in 2008, and it’s among the reasons Delta Air Lines ended its nonstop flights to Salt Lake City. Those flights have been off XNA’s list of nonstop options ever since.
At just 18 people a day traveling to the city, Salt Lake City ranks No. 21 on the list of where Northwest Arkansas travelers want to go. Doubling that number of travelers wouldn’t be enough to justify a Delta flight to Salt Lake. The airline’s huge hub at Salt Lake accounts for 70% of all flying from the airport.
However, the Delta situation is a bit unique when it comes to XNA because it’s super hard to travel west if you’re a fan of Delta. Yes, they can go to Minneapolis/St. Paul or east to Atlanta before backtracking across the nation, but either one makes for a long travel day.
Having something in Salt Lake so Delta travelers can realistically go west could make sense for the airline, but it’s difficult to know where the airline views an XNA-SLC route in comparison to other flights it could be offering.