It wasn’t all that long ago that FareFlightNWA easily selected 10 best successes at Northwest Arkansas National Airport in a single year, but years like 2019 don’t come around too often.
Mid-sized airports like XNA always should be looking to add new air service. It’s not reasonable to expect 2019 kind of success as five new destinations at XNA in a single year was ridiculous in a good way. Expecting one new destination a year is reasonable. If two or three get added, that’s a way-above-average year.
The goal should be one and anything else is gravy, and it’s super important to keep adding in a region such as Northwest Arkansas where the population increases by about 30 people a day. Some of those people will be airport users, too.
But it’s also important to keep nonstop destinations that already exist so if an airport loses one, it should add two to achieve an annual gain of one additional route. Why? Because FareFlightNWA says so.
To be clear, airports can have successes that aren’t about flying to another city. In-terminal improvements, better parking and anything else that leads to a better passenger experience can be among a year’s best successes.
With that as background, here’s how we sized up 2022 at XNA and these “best of” lists are always debatable. We limited ourselves to five successes this year and put No. 1 at the bottom.
Here it goes:
5. Bagels for the people
Airports are about travel so it’s a little hard to get too excited about food in the terminal, but we’ll make an exception just this once.
Einstein Bros. Bagels opened a location at XNA earlier this year, and it’s located just past the moving sidewalk near the A gates.
XNA staff is interested in seeing more offerings in the terminal and that’s good. They’ve talked about enticing someone to put a fast-service restaurant near the gates where Allegiant Air, Frontier Airlines and Breeze Airways board their passengers.
4. Federal funds for SFO route
XNA received a federal grant from the Small Community Air Service Development Program that’s worth $500,000 specifically for the purpose of nonstop air service to San Francisco International Airport. Some news reports suggested it was the start of nonstop service to SFO, but the airport must still strike a deal with an airline willing to fly that route.
United Airlines flew nonstop each day to San Francisco for a few years, but that service ended in early 2020 just as the COVID-19 pandemic was beginning to impact air travel in the U.S. Walmart continues to have a large number of tech workers in the San Francisco/San Jose area, and that’s attractive to an airline interested in flying the XNA-SFO route.
United is one option. Another is Breeze Airways, which flies nonstop to SFO from Cincinnati, Richmond and a few other cities.
Maybe one of 2023’s successes will be the re-establishment of that XNA-SFO nonstop.
3. XNA board favors less-expensive expansion
The Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport Authority, which is the board that oversees Northwest Arkansas National Airport, decided in November to pursue a $34 million expansion of the airport rather than one that would cost more than $50 million.
The project won’t include a skybridge that would have allowed people to walk way above the airport’s road in front of the terminal, but it will include many aspects of the original project. New elevators, escalators, baggage-handling equipment and renovations to the offices of the police department and the Transportation Security Administration are part of the plan. There will be a new information desk, improvements to the airport’s passenger drop-off areas and new floors in some areas of the airport.
There’s significant funding that will come to this project from the federal Airport Terminal Program. It’s about $13 million in all, so that really makes a positive impact on the project from a money perspective.
2. Breeze to Phoenix, Orlando
Breeze Airways won’t start flying to Phoenix or Orlando until 2023, but the announcement of the nonstop flights counts as a 2022 win. Heck, it may count as a 2023 win, too. It’s our list, and we’ll do what we want.
The airline plans to go twice a week to the Phoenix (starting Feb. 17) and Orlando (March 3).
XNA was an original Breeze Airways airport when the airline started flying routes in mid-2021. It offered nonstops to San Antonio, New Orleans and Tampa at first.
While the San Antonio flights were a bust, Tampa is thriving and the New Orleans flights appear to be performing OK. Adding Phoenix and Orlando is an indication that Breeze aims to keep doing more at XNA.
1. American to Phoenix
It would be near impossible for a new daily nonstop not to end up in the top spot on this list, but the American Airlines flight to Phoenix is an imperfect one.
XNA put a daily flight to Phoenix on its wish list years ago, but XNA ended up with twice-a-week, seasonal service offered by Allegiant to the nearby Phoenix/Mesa airport.
Then Breeze actually announced its flights to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport in mid-October, and American came along a few days later and announced its own service to Sky Harbor. Breeze flying to SkyHarbor led to American’s decision.
The American flights to its Phoenix hub, which start Feb. 3, give travelers the possibility that they can bypass busier DFW when making a connection to Sacramento, San Diego or some other city in the western U.S. There’s also value in being able to go directly to Phoenix on American if that’s the final destination.
Yet, the No. 1 success for XNA is imperfect because the American fares are so much more expensive than Breeze and Allegiant.
Google Flights (it’s the best online tool) shows Breeze Airways and Allegiant fly to Phoenix for less than $250 roundtrip most of the time. American on its least expensive days in February, March and April wants $436. That’s not terrible, but it’s a lot more than $250.
You want to go on during spring break, leaving March 18 and returning to XNA on March 25? That’ll set you back $980 on American.
Still, any time XNA gets a new, daily nonstop, it’s a win for Northwest Arkansas.