XNA prepares for possible recession, enplanement hit

Northwest Arkansas National Airport (XNA) in Highfill could recover more slowly to 2019 growth levels amid a looming recession than some industry analysts had forecast.

On Wednesday (December 14), CEO Aaron Burkes told the XNA board of directors that the Great Recession has resulted in about eight years of no growth. For 2022, Burkes expects immigration to hit about 835,000, or about 90% of 2019 levels. Airplanes include passengers exiting the airport.

For 2023, XNA forecasts 830,000 enplanements. Still, industry analysts including S&P Global and Moody’s have forecast increases in 2023 to match 2019 levels. S&P Global forecasts increases to be flat in 2024 and 2025.

“A poll this week made headlines that 98% of CEOs predict a recession next year,” Burkes said. “Who knows if it will happen, but it’s a threat that’s on people’s radar.”

Burkes explained that the pilot shortage affected seating capacity. He said the shortage of about 12,000 pilots would take years to resolve. The plane shortages have also impacted seating capacity, and he noted recent news articles about the billions and billions of dollars in plane orders to try to increase capacity. With larger planes, airlines can address pilot shortages.

Another issue is that air fares are up about 37% compared to this time last year. “That’s leading to near-record profits for the airlines right now,” Burkes added. “They make tons of money.”

He also said business travel has yet to recover to 2019 levels. It remains about 20% below 2019 levels and has plateaued. “Again, many experts are predicting that the whole zoom phenomenon… will lead to long-term trend changes in business travel, such that you’ll never see a full recovery as a percentage of GDP.”

Between January and October, XNA enplanements increased by 43.3% to 698,244 compared to 487,094 in the same period last year. During the same period, aircraft at Clinton National Airport in Little Rock increased 21.8% from 685,840 to 835,392. And during the same period, the number of aircraft at Fort Smith Regional Airport increased 35.8% from 38,229 to 51,940.

Compared to pre-pandemic levels, air travel in 2019 at the previous airports was 922,533, 1.12 million and 95,670, respectively.

In November, arrivals at Clinton National Airport increased 8.7% to 90,781, from 83,480 in November 2021. November arrivals at Fort Smith Regional Airport increased 29.7% to 5,823, from 4,489 in November 2021. The November Flights from XNA are pending.

XNA has six airlines and offers more than 22 direct flights to the United States.

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