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Planes flying from Northwest Arkansas National Airport are carrying more people to places recognized for their business importance, but trips to leisure destinations are increasing at a faster rate, a new report suggests.

Volaire Aviation Consulting’s report also shows airfares to just about every XNA destination were less expensive than three years ago.

The review focused on new data from the first quarter of this year compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Volaire compared it to the first quarter 2019. Airport consultants, including Volaire, avoid using travel data from 2020 and 2021 for comparisons because those years were impacted so much by the COVID-19 pandemic. The two years are not believed to provide meaningful insight into long-term airport and airline performance.

Growing business travel

Business travelers have dominated at XNA over the years, and that remained true in the first quarter of 2019 when New York/Newark, Chicago and Dallas/Fort Worth were the airport’s busiest routes. All three averaged at least 110 travelers a day each way.

In this year’s first quarter, those three destinations carried between 89 passengers (New York/Newark) and 73 passengers (Chicago). While those numbers aren’t as robust as 2019, they were far superior to the amount of travel those routes saw during the COVID-19 pandemic that crushed air travel throughout 2020 and 2021.

Business destinations are recovering from the lows of the pandemic, but it’s a group of leisure destinations that are taking off at XNA.

Leisure destinations rising

Three of the airport’s Top 5 destinations in the first quarter this year are leisure places: No. 1 Orlando/Sanford, No. 3 Las Vegas and No. 5 Tampa/St. Petersburg. Only Orlando/Sanford was a Top 5 destination in 2019.

The Orlando/Sanford route averaged 95 passengers a day in this year’s first quarter. While low-cost carrier Allegiant Air continues its twice-a-week service to the Orlando/Sanford airport, Frontier Airlines ended its twice-a-week flights to nearby Orlando International Airport earlier this year, but it was flown in this year’s first quarter.

American Airlines carried the majority of the people traveling to New York/Newark, XNA’s No. 2 destination overall. It transported 52 of the 89 people who traveled to the Big Apple on a typical day in this year’s first quarter. it’s likely that New York will return to its spot atop the list of XNA destinations as business travel continues to rebuild.

Las Vegas saw 88 people a day make the trip from XNA. That’s increased from 64 people who made the trip three years ago, and that’s in part because Frontier Airlines last year joined Allegiant in providing twice-a-week nonstop service to Las Vegas.

The most interesting destination on the Top 5 list is Tampa/St. Petersburg, which didn’t rank among XNA’s Top 20 in 2019. It’s the biggest riser on XNA’s list, increasing from just 18 people a day in the first quarter of 2019 to 79 daily in the first quarter this year.

It’s normal for destinations to experience big increases once nonstop service becomes available. That’s what happened in Tampa/St. Petersburg. Breeze Airways started flying the route in June 2021 to Tampa International Airport; Allegiant Air later that year added twice-a-week trips to St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport.

Fares Fall 40% or More to 8 Cities

When it comes to airfare, the cost of travel to Tampa/St. Petersburg illustrates the value created by Allegiant and Breeze and how the presence of the two airlines benefits all Tampa-bound fliers.

Tampa travelers this year paid an average of $188 roundtrip; the fare averaged $518 three years ago.

The majority of people flying to Tampa/St. Petersburg in this year’s first quarter relied on Breeze or Allegiant, routinely finding roundtrip fares for $125 or less.

Because those two airlines pulled in the majority of Tampa travelers, American, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines reduced how much they were charging. Most of the 17 people a day making the trip this year on American, Delta and United paid between $400 and $450.

In all, the cost of flying to eight XNA destinations was at least 40% less expensive than three years ago. In addition to the 63% decrease on the Tampa route, fares decreased markedly to San Antonio (-60%), Austin (-54%), New Orleans (-48%), South Florida (-48%), Fort Myers/Punta Gorda (-47%), Phoenix/Mesa (-46%), Denver (-44%) and Chicago (-42%).

Austin, which was served by Allegiant, and San Antonio, where Breeze Airways flew, are no longer among the XNA nonstop offerings.