HIGHFILL -- Northwest Arkansas National Airport is on track to top its prepandemic high for passengers and maybe even surpass 1 million boardings for the first time, according to airport officials.
"This is our strongest January through April performance in the history of the airport, and it is our biggest April numbers in 25 years, since the airport opened," said Aaron Burkes, CEO at Northwest National. "There is still too much uncertainty in the economy to make a full-year forecast, but if this strength continues through the end of the year, we will break 1 million enplanements for the first time ever."
Through April 30 of this year, 284,909 people have boarded airplanes at Northwest National compared with 228,786 in 2022; that's a 24.5% increase.
Leisure travel demand on low-cost carriers has helped Northwest National through some lean times over the last couple of years and remains high, but now it's also seeing a return of business travel, the airport's longtime staple segment.
"Passenger activity is very strong, and it appears that business travel is back in full force," Burkes said. "Year to date, American and United, which are heavily used by business travelers, are showing more growth than the ultra low cost carriers that often serve our leisure travelers."
The airport has historically seen more business travel than leisure travel, but both now are increasing, Burkes said.
"In talking with various companies around Northwest Arkansas, we are under the impression that travel is essentially back to normal, or at least very close to normal," Burkes said. "Leisure travel is still very strong, but we believe that much of the strength this year is the return business travel of all kinds -- meeting with customers, attending conferences and so forth."
International leisure travel is also booming due to pent-up demand, according to Frances Mayo, owner of Around the World Travel in Springdale.
"My No. 1 destination is Europe with river cruising being the most popular. Alaska would be second followed by the Caribbean and Mexico," Mayo said. "This is despite the fact that airfare is easily 20 to 25% higher than precovid. Once folks get over the sticker shock, they are upping their budget and booking anyway. My best advice is book early, at least six to eight months in advance."
The legacy carriers have always dominated market share at Northwest National, and, so far this year, passengers on American Airlines are up 40.5% over the same time last year. United Airlines is up 31.3%. Delta Air Lines passengers are down 2.6% from last year.
American's market share is now 52% and United is at 17%.
On the low-cost side, Breeze Airways passengers are up 11% over the same time last year, and Allegiant Air is up 7.5%. Breeze has 3% of the market share and Allegiant 11%.
Last year was Northwest National's second best year since opening despite lingering effects of the covid-19 pandemic. But 2022 was still down 9.4% from its best year, which was was just before the pandemic in 2019.
Airport officials have used 2019 as a measuring stick because the covid-19 pandemic decimated travel beginning in early 2020. Northwest National had a record year in 2019 with 922,553 passengers. In 2020, passengers declined 61% to 360,133.
Compared with 2019, Northwest National passengers were up 10.1% in January and up 9% in February. March saw a 14% increase over 2019 and April was up 8.6%.
Extrapolating the first four months growth rate of 10.7% over 2019 numbers through the rest of the year would put passengers at Northwest at 1,020,958 passengers by the end of 2023, according to Burkes. But, Burkes said continuing economic uncertainty is tempering his confidence in that forecast.
"Most economists appear to be predicting a recession later this year," Burkes said. "Recessions tend to have a negative impact on enplanements when we look back at historical recessions. That is the biggest threat I see out there right now."