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HIGHFILL -- The Northwest Arkansas National Airport is outperforming its peers as fliers trickle back, and average fares are cheaper, officials said last week.

Travel at the airport is down almost 70% for July 1-19 compared with the same period last year, according to the federal Transportation Security Administration data. The numbers represent the number of people passing through the security checkpoint, and include flight crew members.

This year 17,184 people have passed through the checkpoint compared with 56,606 people for the same period last year.

Nationally, air traffic is down 73% for the same period, according to the agency.

In April, traffic at Northwest Arkansas National Airport was down 96% from last year; in May, it was down 89.8%; and in June it was 81.7%. Those figures basically parallel national numbers.

"We are pleased to see the number of passengers rebounding," said Aaron Burkes, chief executive officer at XNA. "Much of the activity we are observing is leisure travelers taking advantage of deeply discounted airfares. Very low fares is certainly one of the few bright spots for consumers right now."

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 XNA, not just lower cost carriers like Frontier and Allegiant.

Lum said he was expecting first quarter 2020 data to look bad, but XNA had strong months in January and February relative to peer airports before everything went south with the covid-19 pandemic starting in March.

The peer group that Lum tracks includes Little Rock; Tulsa; Springfield, Mo.; Lexington, Ky.; Des Moines, Iowa; Wichita, Kan.; Colorado Springs, Colo.; Dayton, Ohio; Madison, Wis.; Greensboro, N.C.; Knoxville, Tenn.; and Greenville, S.C.

"While traffic declined at all airports, XNA's decline was more favorable than all airports," Lum said. "XNA also had the largest decline in the average domestic fare and the average domestic plus international fare."

The airport is a business destination for people 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.

Airport officials say business travelers have historically accounted for roughly 60% of traffic through the Northwest Arkansas airport.

XNA went from 329 flights in the last week of February to 19 a few weeks later, according to U.S. Department of Transportation data. The airport averaged 302 flights a week in 2019.

Air travel hit a low of 10 flights a day in April. This month the average was about 20.

Enplanements for 2019 were up 17%, to 922,533, which far exceeded expectations and projections. The airport had 788,261 passengers in 2018. Those numbers were reported by the airlines and did not include flight crews.

The number of arriving and departing passengers combined was 1,846,374 in 2019, compared with 1,574,610 in 2018, according to airport officials.

Ron Wood can be reached by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @NWARDW.

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