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Northwest Arkansas National keeping larger percentage of local flyers



FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – A new study shows more travelers are choosing Northwest Arkansas National Airport rather than driving to airports in Oklahoma or Missouri.

“Capturing a large and growing percentage of our market tells us that customers view XNA as their best value proposition,” said Aaron Burkes, airport chief executive officer.

The “Traffic Retention and Leakage Study” from Volaire Aviation, an air service development consultant, shows a significant decrease in leakage for Northwest National. Leakage is what occurs when passengers from one airport’s core market drive to another airport to catch a flight.

Nonstop flights and price are typical reasons people have gone elsewhere in the past.

“I will typically compare flight prices out of XNA, Tulsa and Little Rock. Every now and then, the price difference has been significant enough to make it worth it,” said Courtney Cassidy of Fayetteville about driving to another airport to catch a flight.

“Additionally, there may be a direct flight option out of another airport or more desirable departure and arrival times,” she said.

The report determined how much of the traveling market is captured by Northwest National versus other competing airports from its catchment area. The catchment area refers to 142 zip codes in Northwest Arkansas, northeast Oklahoma and southwest Missouri.

Northwest National got 65.9% of the 1,984 passenger trips per day in the catchment area in 2018. That number increased to 73.7% of 2,338 passenger trips per day in 2019. Passenger trips per day increased 354 in 2019, a 17.8% rise over 2018.

The study found Northwest National is capturing the vast majority of passengers who live in the Interstate 49 corridor cities — Bella Vista, Bentonville, Rogers, Springdale and Fayetteville. According to the study, 84% of all those who live in the corridor and decide to fly use Northwest National.

“The more passengers we serve at XNA, the easier it is to recruit other airlines and to add new direct destinations to our market,” Burkes said. “This continues the cycle of increasing competition, lowering fares, increasing convenience and further enhancing the value to our customers.”

Leisure travelers are likely driving most of the gain in market retention, according to airport officials.

“Average air fares at XNA have dropped significantly over the past year, so more travelers than ever are choosing XNA. We are not only capturing more of our market, but the attractive fares are bringing in customers who might normally drive instead of fly,” Burkes said. “In many cases now, it is less expensive to fly than it is to drive.”

Burkes said one of the four goals the airport’s board set last year was to “create a competitive value proposition for business and leisure customers.”

What does that mean in English?

The airport’s average domestic fare fell 14.3% from $252 in the first quarter of 2019 to $216 in the first quarter of 2020, according to Mike Lum, with Volaire Aviation Consulting. The average fare declined for all airlines serving Northwest National, not just lower cost carriers such as Frontier and Allegiant.

“The additional airline capacity XNA was able to attract in 2019 put downward pressure on air fares and enabled XNA to reduce the number of passengers who chose to fly from other airports in the region,” Lum said Wednesday.

Expansion in 2019 included the arrival of Frontier providing flights to Denver. Allegiant added several seasonal routes, including Nashville, Tenn; Destin, Fla.; and Phoenix. American added routes to Miami and Philadelphia and United added flights to Denver.

“Residents of Northwest Arkansas benefit from having the option to economically fly — whether for business or for fun — without having to drive to another airport farther away,” Burkes said.

The airport is a business destination for those traveling to the headquarters of Tyson Foods, J.B. Hunt and Walmart and its vendors. Airlines can charge more and business travelers will pay more because they have to travel to Northwest Arkansas. XNA officials say businesses travelers have historically accounted for roughly 60% of its traffic.

The airport averaged 302 flights a week in 2019. Flights at Northwest National had increased to 329 in the last week of February, according to U.S. Department of Transportation data. In recent weeks, the airport has been averaging about 160 flights a week.

Burkes said it’s difficult to say how business will go at Northwest National compared to other airports after the pandemic has passed.

“Airlines have reduced their total seat capacity by permanently retiring older, less efficient planes, so we expect to see consolidation of capacity at fewer airports where there is the greatest demand,” Burkes said. “The strong business customer base in Northwest Arkansas gives us reason to be optimistic that airlines will want to serve our market through XNA, which is by far the most convenient airport for those living in, or doing business in, Northwest Arkansas.”