Northwest National Airport soars to second-best year ever in 2022; 2023 looking good

Passengers check in at Northwest Arkansas National Airport on Aug. 17 2022. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff)
Passengers check in at Northwest Arkansas National Airport on Aug. 17 2022. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff)

HIGHFILL -- Northwest Arkansas National Airport had a good 2022, and preliminary passenger counts from the Transportation Security Administration checkpoint for January have airport officials optimistic about their prospects for 2023.

"We are seeing continued strong travel demand locally and nationally," said Aaron Burkes, CEO. "We finished 2022 as our second-best year ever in terms of passenger volume. So far this month, TSA throughput numbers suggest we may beat 2019 numbers for January."

Official numbers show there were 836,195 enplanements in 2022. That was down 9.4% from the 2019 high, but up 34.4% from 2021 when there were 621,942 enplanements.

Airport officials are using 2019 as a measuring stick because the covid-19 pandemic decimated travel beginning in early 2020. The industry is still working to get back to prepandemic levels. Northwest National had a record year in 2019 with 922,553 enplanements. In 2020, enplanements declined 61% to 360,133.

The airport has historically seen more business travel than leisure travel, but during the pandemic that metric changed and both now are increasing, Burkes said.

"There seems to be very strong demand from both business and leisure travelers right now. The strong leisure demand is a continuation of the post-covid boom in leisure travel, but the recent uptick in passengers appears to be driven largely by the rebounding business travelers," Burkes said. "All indications are that the business traveler is back in full swing in Northwest Arkansas – perhaps very close to 2019 levels."

Frances Mayo, owner of Around the World Travel in Springdale, said she's also seeing high demand from leisure travelers.

"Bookings are soaring. The greatest demand I am seeing are for Europe, specifically river and ocean cruises, and all-inclusives in Mexico and the Caribbean," Mayo said. "Pricing is running anywhere from 25% to 30% higher than pre-covid in 2019, but folks are still going."

Burkes said the airlines serving Northwest National continue to add destinations.

"Strong demand is evidenced by the fact that most flights into and out of Northwest National are full," Burkes said.

He noted new capacity next month with daily nonstop service on American Airlines to Phoenix as well as new service on Breeze to Orlando, Fla., Phoenix and Charleston, S.C. Also, direct service to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., returns in March on Allegiant Air, he said.

Low-cost carriers continue to pick up market share at Northwest National, according to airport officials. In 2022, 19.8% of enplanements were on Allegiant, Breeze and Frontier. That's up from 18% in 2021. In 2018, low cost carriers accounted for 5% of enplanements at the airport.

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