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Highfill airport shifts goals away from drawing Southwest Airlines

by Ron Wood | November 26, 2021 at 3:08 a.m.
NWA Democrat-Gazette/DAVID GOTTSCHALK The terminal and front entrance is visible Friday, June 22, 2018, at the Northwest Arkansas Regioinal Airport in Highfill. The 20-year-old terminal building at the Northwest Arkansas Regioinal Airport will be getting a makeover in the next couple of years. Board members on Wednesday had in an informal input session with engineers and architects to give them a general idea of what they'd like the terminal to look like after the planned renovation and expansion. The work should result in a new front door for the terminal including a new building across the loop drive from the main terminal and a second-floor bridge into what is now the front of the terminal.

HIGHFILL — Southwest Airlines probably isn’t interested in coming to Northwest Arkansas National Airport in the near future for business reasons, so officials are looking at helping the airlines they already have add flights and destinations. They’re also looking for other low-cost carriers they can potentially lure.

Sky Synergy, a consulting firm hired by the airport to study whether it was feasible, or advisable, to prioritize recruiting Southwest, told board members recently Northwest National doesn’t appear to fit Southwest’s current expansion model.

The consultants looked at airline costs and revenue at other airports, Northwest National’s fees and costs and Southwest’s current airport costs, among other data, to reach their conclusion.

“Our analysis, run using the same methodology airlines themselves use to evaluate opportunities, indicates that because the Northwest Arkansas market is so well-served by its incumbent carriers, additional service by Southwest Airlines is unlikely to be profitable enough to bring them to Northwest Arkansas in the near term,” said Edward Shelswell, chief customer officer with Sky Synergy.

Northwest National isn’t an ideal fit because there’s high risk for a thin return on their investment and there’s no obvious unfilled market niche for Southwest to penetrate, they said. Coming to XNA would also shift some Southwest passenger demand away from Tulsa, where the carrier is already well-established.

Southwest also has a number of flights into and out of Little Rock’s Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport/Adams Field every day, including service to Dallas, Atlanta, St. Louis, Denver and other cities.

Northwest National is already connected to major hub airports with more than 30 flights a day, the Sky Synergy team said. Southwest would probably have to swap out a gate in Chicago that likely has a higher profit margin than would Northwest National in order to add service there.

The consultants said Southwest’s profit margin in Tulsa, Oklahoma City and Little Rock — all considered like-markets — are positive but not overwhelming. Southwest struggles in those markets on flights to Dallas/ Fort Worth because they’re competing with American Airlines, which is based there. Service from Northwest National would present the same challenges, they said.

While Northwest National does punch above its weight in terms of the number of travelers, it has fewer than 100 passengers a day, on average, going to any individual market served by Southwest.

The consultants said Northwest National’s market is well served relative to the population, leaving little opportunity for Southwest to enter the market profitably.

The most likely successful path for Northwest National to grow air service isn’t to focus on a specific carrier.

“While we will always welcome Southwest Airlines to Northwest Arkansas if ever they decide to enter the market, the most effective strategy for XNA in 2022 and beyond is to prioritize the continued success of existing carriers and service, because that success translates into more routes, more competition and lower air fares,” said Aaron Burkes, CEO at Northwest National. “As part of that strategy, XNA will continue its efforts to grow passenger demand for existing service, both from customers living in and around Northwest Arkansas, and from those who might consider Northwest Arkansas as a business or leisure destination.” In the short term, Northwest National should look to keep passengers from leaving the market to fly from other airports, known as leakage. In the mid-term, officials should try to increase leisure passenger demand and, in the longterm, grow the number of targeted passengers living in Northwest Arkansas, according to the study. The region is projected to have about a million people living here by 2045.

While the cost to fly is high across the country these days as airlines try to make up for lost revenue during the pandemic, ticket prices at Northwest National had been getting more affordable in recent years, on average, with the addition of low-cost carriers to the airport’s stable, airport officials said.

Andrew Branch, chief business development officer at Northwest National, said the airport is extremely well served by the three largest airlines — American, Delta and United — as well as by three of the lowest-cost carriers in America: Allegiant, Frontier and Breeze.

“We are using the events of the past 18 months to reassess our strategies and tactics, because what worked before covid, when XNA was one of the fastest-growing airports in the country, may not make sense in the post-covid environment,” Branch said. “The portfolio analysis helps us prioritize our air service recruitment and marketing efforts based on a clear understanding of reality.”

 

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