XNA resilient through winter disruption, still after low-cost carrier

story by Kim Souza
ksouza@thecitywire.com

Thousands of December and January flight cancellations around the country because of winter weather did not have a negative impact on travel out of the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport (XNA).

Between Dec. 1 and Feb. 18, there were 102,000 weather-related flight cancellations, according to masFlight tracking data. These events not only frustrated travelers, but are expected to cost airlines between $250 million and $500 million, according to industry analysts.

Regional carriers like those that serve XNA were the most impacted from the onslaught on cancellations. ExpressJet led in cancellations with 11,658, according to FlightAware. American Eagle has been the second hardest hit with 11,235 cancellations during the 11-week period.  Other airlines impacted include: Southwest with 7,323 cancellations; American, 6,954; United, 6,731; Delta, 6,253; Skywest, 4,760; US Air, 3,496; and JetBlue, 3,378.

However, XNA reported December enplanements rose 2.9% from the prior year and total passenger count was up 7.97% in December. In January, XNA reported 39,990 enplanements, up 7.25% from a year ago. Total passengers served by the airport equaled 74,102 last month, an increase of 6.97% from a year ago.

“All I can say is we have been busy here. The parking lot has stayed full and we have had just a few cancellations dating back to December, “ said Scott Van Laningham, executive director at XNA.

He said while there were business travelers who could not fly to Northwest Arkansas from other other cities, those return flight seats were filled by others traveling business class.

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Van Laningham said the local airport officials continue to meet with any carrier they can to try and secure more routes for XNA and help reduce fares. Airfare is typically up to 30% higher at XNA than other local airports because of limited seat capacity and strong business demand.

“We are well-aware that more competition is needed to bring down overall fares at XNA.  But there really is very little expansion going on now. While the economy is stronger and improving here locally, most airlines don’t feel that’s the case on the national level. That is holding back expansion, in my opinion.” Van Laningham said.

Southwest and Frontier Airlines have agreed to talk to XNA officials, according to local sources, but there is no indication that either of the carriers will add an XNA route.

Southwest Airlines is pulling out Branson and Jackson, Miss., in June, citing the level of local demand does not fit the carrier’s profitability standards. Key West, Fla., also is being dropped from Southwest. Key West and Branson were picked up with the company’s merger of AirTran Airways.

Van Laningham said one major difference between the Branson market and Northwest Arkansas is the business base that travels to and from Highfill during the week. Branson is largely entertainment based, with more leisure and vacation oriented travelers, he said.

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The experiment stopover in Branson was a short one for Southwest, who just began flying there in March of last year. Those routes include two flights to Chicago and one to Houston and Dallas. The Northwest Arkansas business community would love to capture those routes, but XNA officials are tight-lipped on how the talks are going.

Van Laningham did say that while airline expansion is nearly non-existent these days, Frontier recently announced six new routes, including three new nonstop routes from St. Louis. Frontier is taking hub space vacated by American Airlines and will compete with Southwest, which operates nearly three dozen destinations from St. Louis.

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