This year is nothing short of incredible when it comes to new air service at Northwest Arkansas National Airport.
Low-cost carriers serving XNA have added flights like crazy this year. Allegiant Air now has competition for Las Vegas travelers, thanks to Frontier Airlines. Three entirely new destinations are on the map, thanks to Breeze Airways.
For its part, Allegiant adds two destinations this week after adding three earlier this year. The airline’s twice-a-week flights from XNA to Punta Gorda start today. Houston Hobby service begins Friday.
Meanwhile, legacy carriers American Airlines, United Airlines and Delta Air Lines at XNA have restarted just about all the nonstop routes that existed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. United, for instance, is flying to Newark again, and American is going direct to Los Angeles.
All that new service from the low-cost carriers, the legacy restarts, and the air service that never stopped during the pandemic, such as the flights to Dallas/Fort Worth, Chicago O’Hare and Atlanta, create a challenge for Northwest Arkansas. Can the region put enough people on planes to ensure all those routes are successful? Is there enough customer demand for all that supply?
Keeping all the routes will take an incredible commitment from air travelers to prioritize flying from XNA over other airports. Every person who drives from Northwest Arkansas to Tulsa to fly Southwest Airlines increases the chance that a route from XNA won’t stick.
Additionally, XNA must draw in more passengers from further away, and the new offerings compliments of the three low-cost carriers (Allegiant, Frontier and Breeze) should help.
No one believes ensuring the success of all the new service at XNA will be easy.
Even in 2019, arguably the airport’s best year with a record-breaking 922,000 outbound passengers, XNA didn’t have a high load factor, which is the percentage of seats on a plane occupied by passengers. Data shared at a retreat of the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport Authority Board of Directors this week showed the average XNA flight in 2019 had 79 seats, and 59 of those were occupied by passengers. While a 75% load factor isn’t bad, it is unremarkable.
Load factors worldwide have trended up for years, and were near 75% way back in 2005. By 2019, the worldwide load factor was 82.6%, meaning most flights leaving XNA weren’t as full as an average flight.
What’s always worked in XNA’s favor from the airlines’ perspective is the high average fare. To be profitable, flights don’t have to have as many passengers if the passengers paid more for the seat, and that’s been the case at XNA for years.
The average fare for a domestic roundtrip from XNA in 2015 was $509, and it swelled to $538 in 2017.
Yet XNA’s average domestic fare is on the decline. In 2019, it slipped to $485, and it went far lower at XNA and every U.S. airport in 2020 due to the pandemic. XNA’s average was $374 last year. Every airline route planner looks at all statistics from 2020 with skepticism because they are unlikely to suggest what could happen after the pandemic ends.
The average fare during the first two quarters of 2021 crept back up, but it was far below the pre-pandemic $485.
Several factors work in XNA’s favor when it comes to retaining its new air service. Those factors include:
Officials at XNA have talked for years about “pent-up demand,” meaning people who would fly from XNA if the fares weren’t so high. Low-cost carriers have provided many new options, making it easy for cost-conscious travelers to find roundtrip fares for less than $200 each.
The first low-cost carrier to serve XNA was Allegiant, and its adding the two new destinations this week. If the airline didn’t have high hopes for XNA, would it keep investing in XNA? The answer is no.
Breeze Airways targeted underserved routes when it announced its route network in the spring this year, and it selected XNA as one of the limited number of cities it would serve from the start. By choosing XNA and providing the first-ever flights from XNA to New Orleans, San Antonio and Tampa, it was a positive statement about the future of the market.
The airline served only Denver from XNA when it started in mid-2019, but it’s added Las Vegas and Orlando flights. The new flights suggest it likes what it’s seeing when it comes to Denver, and that it’s optimistic about Northwest Arkansas’ future.
Northwest Arkansas has a higher-than-average number of business travelers who work for companies like Walmart, Tyson Foods and J.B. Hunt and who have elite status within legacy airlines’ frequent flier programs. While airlines can’t lose money on too many routes, they can afford to keep slightly unprofitable routes going if it keeps corporate travelers from relying on competitors. In short, not every route has to be profitable at XNA.
Drive time to an airport matters. XNA is about 10 minutes closer to key areas of southwest Missouri thanks to the Oct. 1 opening of the Bella Vista Bypass. While McDonald, Newton and Jasper counties in Missouri don’t have huge populations, it’s about 200,000 people who are now closer to XNA.
NWA Population growth
The region boasts 550,000 people now, but it’s projected to have 974,000 people by 2045. Airlines are aware of that anticipated growth, and it should lead to more people flying from XNA as the region grows.