One constant at Northwest Arkansas National Airport, which turns 25 today, is its ever-changing nature.
Those 25 years were marked by airline bankruptcies and mergers, the 2001 terrorist attacks that crippled the aviation industry, a massive economic downturn in 2008 and the COVID-19 pandemic. But they have also brought new flights and low-cost airlines, a parking deck and other expansions, a redesignation from a regional airport to a national one, and more and more passengers – potentially nearing 1 million this year.
It’s a remarkable run for a project that was never guaranteed even to happen, much less be successful, as Scott Van Laningham, XNA’s first CEO, recently told the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He remembered encountering skepticism both within the region and around the country.
“They were just wrong. There was a genuine need for a new facility,” Van Laningham told the newspaper. “One of the things that I am most proud of is the collective pride that the people in the whole region have about the success of XNA.”
The anniversary also vindicates decades of effort by partners throughout the region, including the Northwest Arkansas Council, which was founded in 1990 with a regional airport and an expanded local highway system as its two main goals, and the Walton family, including founding Council member Sam Walton and first Council chairwoman Alice Walton.
In late 1990, Sam Walton told the visiting U.S. House Public Works and Transportation Committee that Walmart’s sales could quadruple within 10 years. “But we need the airport and the roads to do it,” he said, according to the Democrat-Gazette.
On Nov. 1, 1998 – following the formation of the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport Authority, voters’ reaffirmed support for its work, a federal land-purchase grant and years of construction – Sam Walton’s recipe for success was realized. President Bill Clinton flew in on Air Force One to commemorate the occasion a few days later.
“I said that day that the effort to open the airport symbolized America at its best: people working on a common objective, across party lines, putting people first and thinking about the future,” Clinton recently recalled. “All these years later, I still feel that way.”
Today the airport’s economic impact likely exceeds $500 million and thousands of jobs annually, with direct flights to two dozen destinations. And its expansions and other changes continue, including a vastly expanded network of flights and the increased presence of low-cost carriers. Allegiant Air used to be the only low-cost carrier at XNA, and its flights in 2018 carried just 5% of all XNA travelers. With Allegiant adding more flights and the arrival of low-cost carriers Frontier Airlines and Breeze Airways, budget carriers will transport about 20% of travelers this year.
The Arkansas Department of Transportation also is scheduled on Jan. 5 to open construction bids on a four-lane airport access road, a project that’s been in the works for two decades.
“The 25th anniversary of XNA’s opening is a reminder of what Northwest Arkansas has achieved, and can continue to achieve, through regional collaboration and planning for an even brighter future,” said Nelson Peacock, Council CEO and president. “We’re proud to have helped it happen and look forward to seeing where XNA flies next.”