Doubts ran deep when the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport opened its doors on Nov. 1, 1998, but no one today questions how much value the airport brings to the region.
The regional airport, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary today by giving away a three-day trip and other prizes to selected airport visitors, is recognized as one of the region’s most important infrastructure additions in more than 50 years.
No component of the region’s physical infrastructure is more valuable to business travelers than XNA, which cost $107 million. With nonstop flights to 15 destinations, business travelers can jet away to centers of commerce such as New York, Dallas/Fort Worth, Chicago, Atlanta and San Francisco.
Delta Air Lines, American Airlines and United Airlines provide flights to those five locations and eight other cities. The cities are primary destinations for employees of the three Fortune 500 companies that are based in Northwest Arkansas: Walmart, Tyson Foods and J.B. Hunt Transport Services.
Yet, the business travelers using XNA stretch well beyond the Big Three. Employees of more than 1,400 Walmart suppliers — Kimberly Clark, Unilever, Cognizant, Tata Consultancy Services, Procter & Gamble, General Mills and Coca-Cola among them — are regulars on flights to and from XNA.
Business travelers have accounted for more than 60 percent of the 10.9 million outbound and 10.8 million inbound passengers since the airport’s opening, airport administrators estimate. Because of its proximity to the Walmart headquarters, the airport and the region are recognized as being among the nation’s most important business destinations.
While business travel dominates at XNA, that’s not the case across the U.S. The U.S. Travel Association estimates 74 percent of all air travel is for leisure. Over the years, leisure has become increasingly important at XNA. Allegiant Air, which started service at XNA in 2009, goes to Las Vegas, Orlando and Destin, and the carrier provides some of the most affordable options.
Led by Alice Walton and former Congressman John Paul Hammerschmidt in the 1990s, the Northwest Arkansas Council was the primary organization pushing for the establishment of new transportation infrastructure, including a better airport in a region that had about 250,000 residents at the time. Former Northwest Arkansas Council Director Uvalde Lindsey has described regional projects like the airport as the “genesis” that caused many people to stop saying they live in a particular city and more frequently say they live in Northwest Arkansas.
Scott Van Laningham, the airport’s retiring president and CEO, has described the Council as the organization that advocated and rallied people around the plan for a regional airport. No one was more determined to complete the airport than Alice Walton, Lindsey said. There were questions about whether the airport would be able to attract commercial air service away from Fayetteville’s Drake Field, and worries about whether enough passengers would pick the new regional airport over the more familiar option in Fayetteville.
“Alice didn’t take no for an answer very well,” Lindsey said in a video about the Northwest Arkansas Council’s history made public in 2015. “She was strong in her opinion that we were going to get this thing done.”
“I’m not sure I was much of a leader,” said Walton, who was described by Fayetteville attorney John Elrod as irreplaceable to the airport project. “I know I wasn’t very good at protocol. Be that as it may, I think we were all of one mind in terms of the priorities and what we needed to get done and of the need to bring the region’s leadership together to work on common issues.”
The Council remains involved with the airport, helping in the pursuit of an airline to provide daily low-cost air service and ensuring that all airlines know about the business travel needs of the region’s companies.
The airport’s opening was a national affair with President Bill Clinton arriving in his home state for a dedication ceremony on Nov. 6, 1998. At the time of its opening, the airport was just the third new commercial airport to open in the U.S. in 25 years (the $700 million Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport in 1974 and the $4.8 billion Denver International Airport in 1995 were the other two).
Since XNA’s opening, major expansions have been the norm.
The Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport Authority over the years has agreed to pay for a slew of new parking lots, added a $35 million parking deck that opened this year, expanded the ticketing areas, added a second baggage carousel, constructed an outboard taxiway and spent more than $20 million on a 2011 terminal expansion to provide more passenger boarding gates for airlines.
The 20th anniversary comes with a major leadership change at the top. Aaron Burkes took over this week for Van Laningham as XNA’s CEO. Burkes was director of the Arkansas Development Finance Authority before joining the XNA team.
Pictured at the top: Many employees of American Airlines at the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport on Wednesday gave up their traditional light blue shirts for the day in favor of Halloween-focused clothing. American has remained the dominate service provider at XNA since its opening, currently accounting for about 50 percent of the departures.