NWA editorial: Those soaring fares

XNA destinations great, but costs are high

Posted: February 2, 2018 at 1 a.m.

Travelers know they can fly to a lot of places from the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport.

They also know it's not necessarily going to be cheap.

What’s the point?

Higher ticket fares at Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport are a market-driven result of most travelers coming from the business world.

In the nearly two decades since the airport opened in what had until then been cow pastures, the list of direct flight destinations has grown. Today, the still-expanding airport originates flights from four airlines to more than dozen locations: Dallas, Houston, Chicago, Denver, Minneapolis, Atlanta, Charlotte, New York City, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Los Angeles and more.

For this corner of Northwest Arkansas, having that many direct flights is an incredible convenience. But as a story in Sunday's newspaper examined, the regional airport continues to be a home for high ticket prices.

The U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics says the nation's average airfare is the lowest since the agency began tracking airline ticket prices in 1993. But Arkansas' two major commercial airports -- in Little Rock and Highfill, southwest of Bentonville -- won't come close to matching that national average.

The latest survey showed Little Rock's average around $445. The Northwest Arkansas airport's airlines' average fares costing $534.

That can be frustrating for the casual traveler, the family trying to take a vacation or the small-business owner looking to get to a trade show. Plenty of folks in the region will still make the drive to Tulsa for flights that can sometimes save them big dollars.

Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport was never built for the casual traveler; its success is rooted in business travel. Indeed, were it not for the business travelers, travelers might still be boarding turbo-props at Fayetteville's Drake Field.

Those vendors for Walmart and travelers doing business with the region's other major corporations are the regional airport's bread and butter. And that sector pays, big, for in-and-out flights close to the companies they do business with. Ticket prices remain high, but the facts of the matter are there are enough customers willing to pay those prices that the airline doesn't have to make fares more affordable.

Airport officials at XNA, the three-letter federal designation for the airport that's become its well-marketed moniker, say they would love to have a low-cost airline, but from the early days, they've noted the region doesn't (yet) have enough passengers to draw such flights in significant numbers. It will have to be more competition that lowers fares and the level of business at XNA isn't going to make that happen soon.

So, Northwest Arkansas, enjoy your destination choices, but save your dollars. All in all, the success of Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport has been a great asset for the entire region, connecting it more directly to the rest of the country. We're glad it's here, even if we join our neighbors in wishing for cheaper fares ... and more leg room.

Commentary on 02/02/2018