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Northwest Arkansas National Airport didn’t get to 1 million passengers in 2023, but it came pretty darn close.

XNA officials this week shared year-end statistics, showing the airport saw 991,489 people board flights to jet off to the airport’s 22 nonstop destinations. While the airport appeared to be on its way to record year months ago, only now does 2023 officially replace 2019 as the busiest year.

Airport administrators throughout 2023 were careful never to predict 1 million passengers as some economists had raised the possibility of an economic downturn that would have tempered travel. However, the much-talked-about recession never materialized. Still, airport officials remained careful. As recently as Dec. 11, Airport CEO Aaron Burkes told his board he was expecting the year to end with 980,000 to 983,000 passengers.

Passenger records are falling across the country. Records were broken last year in Des Moines, Palm Springs, Las Vegas and Charleston, S.C. Newspapers in the coming weeks are certain to report many more records as airports publicize year-end statistics.

At XNA, the 991,489 passengers topped the 2022 total by 18.6%. It bested 2019 by 7.5%.

Allegiant’s massive growth

A primary reason for XNA’s big increase in 2023, and why it beat 2019 by about 70,000 passengers, is the increased service being offered by low-cost carriers.

Allegiant Air was XNA’s only discount carrier when 2019 started, and Frontier Airline arrived and started selling trips to Denver by mid-year. Those airlines carried 8.3% of XNA’s total passengers that year.

In 2023, the combination of Allegiant, Frontier and Breeze Airways, which arrived at the airport in 2021, transported twice as many people (17.6%).

American Airlines remains the airport’s primary carrier and captured 49.8% of all travelers last year. Its nonstop flight to Phoenix each day, which started in February, was 2023’s biggest air service improvement.

Yet it’s Allegiant that’s consistently increased its presence at XNA over the years.

Using dated Boeing MD-80s purchased from other airlines, Allegiant started at XNA more than a decade ago with twice-a-week flights to Las Vegas, Orlando and Los Angeles.

The airline phased out the last of the worn-out MD-80s in 2018 and replaced them with an Airbus A320 fleet. With the more reliable planes, Allegiant’s nonstop offerings from XNA now include the original destinations plus Destin, Phoenix/Mesa, Nashville, Fort Lauderdale and St. Petersburg/Clearwater.

All those nonstop options allowed the airline to lure more than 115,000 XNA passengers last year, almost twice the 64,000 Allegiant passengers who departed from XNA in 2019.

More destinations

XNA’s 22 nonstop destinations are impressive considering it remains below 1 million passengers. Its available nonstops equal Tulsa International Airport, which enplanes about 1.5 million passengers a year, and it’s significantly more than the 14 flown from Little Rock’s Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport, the state’s largest commercial airport.

XNA’s air service situation is far from perfect, however. There’s no nonstop flight to San Francisco, something United Airlines stopped offering in early 2020. The airport is hoping an airline will take advantage of a federal grant that’s available to an airline that starts providing San Francisco service.

The public wants popular Southwest Airlines to begin service at XNA, and they’ve made that known on social media for years. Airport officials have indicated they’ll work hard in pursuit of that service in 2024. Southwest, which floods Northwest Arkansas with advertising and already flies into Little Rock and Tulsa, is popular enough that many Northwest Arkansas residents make the 100-mile drive to Tulsa to catch Southwest flights.