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Nothing stirs up a conversation on Northwest Arkansas National Airport social media accounts quite like someone mentioning Southwest Airlines.

The Texas-based airline, which flies from airports in Tulsa and Little Rock but not Northwest Arkansas, will become the target of a formal recruiting campaign led by airport administrators in 2024.

“We get a lot of chatter in the community,” said Mike Johnson, a long-time member of the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport Authority. “If we can show we have a plan, that type of ongoing public-relations effort would be very helpful.”

Andrew Branch, the airport’s chief operating officer, told the airport authority on Tuesday that XNA will work with one of its consultants to determine which Southwest routes would make the most sense for the airline and Northwest Arkansas travelers.

XNA will also form a community advisory committee with five to seven people on it, Branch said. Those committee members could weigh in on decisions and have their own ideas regarding the recruitment of Southwest.

XNA officials were careful to suggest that other airlines could be pursued and be discussed by the advisory committee, but the PowerPoint slide presented at Tuesday’s board meeting described the effort as a “Southwest Airlines Recruitment Plan.”

XNA already interacts with Southwest

XNA’s leaders talk with Southwest representatives at least annually at events such as the JumpStart Air Service Development Conference and Routes Americas. Those events and others like them allow for hundreds of 20- to 25-minute conversations to occur between representatives of airports and airlines. XNA often has four to six meetings with airlines at a conference.

For XNA, daily flights on Southwest to Dallas Love Field, Chicago Midway, St. Louis or Denver would appear to make the most sense.

Southwest competitors already at XNA offer nonstop flights to Denver and to airports in the Chicago and Dallas metropolitan areas. St. Louis doesn’t have nonstop service from XNA.

Increasing advantages

XNA keeps changing in ways that should make the airport a more attractive place for Southwest and other airlines to do business.

For example, the airport is on pace to end 2023 with about 980,000 passengers, far more than the 922,000 in XNA’s best year (2019).

Those record enplanements are coming despite airlines making fewer seats available for purchase at XNA. There were about 3,500 seats available each day in 2019; it was closer to 3,150 in November this year..

Some of the biggest reductions are in the number of seats available for trips to Dallas/Fort Worth, Chicago O’Hare and Atlanta, and that should heighten Southwest’s interest.

More passengers coupled with fewer available seats means flights are fuller. Southwest should like that.

Southwest is great at advertising, and it’s saturated Northwest Arkansas television stations with their messages for decades. Those ads have made Northwest Arkansas residents familiar with Southwest’s routes, its availability in nearby Tulsa and the fact that passengers pay change fees or for the first two checked bags.

Southwest should also like that XNA has reduced its charges to all of its airlines, making it more affordable to operate. The airport authority agreed to cut some fees on Tuesday, reducing the cost per enplanement to $8.46 in 2024. That cost approached $10 in 2022, and it’s $9.20 this year.

The cost per enplaned passenger takes into account what airports require airlines to pay in rent, landing fees, fuel flowage fees and other related charges.

Airports charge wide ranging fees, leading to some large airports with a cost per enplanement in excess of $25. Others, such as the airport in Charlotte, have costs below $2 per passenger.

XNA’s 13 peer airports, which were last surveyed in 2021, has cost per enplanements between 16.08 (Greensboro, N.C.) and $2.04 (Colorado Springs). XNA’s $9.98 fee at that time was middle of the pack.