Walla Walla will become a two-flight town after the start of the new year.
Despite being on the road to a record-breaking year for air travel, Walla Walla is not drawing enough travelers to fill Horizon Air's larger planes, said Dan Russo, vice president of marketing and communications for the Seattle-based carrier. The airline plans to eliminate its 11:55 a.m. daily flight to Seattle starting Jan. 6.
Russo said Horizon's conversion from its 37-seat Q200 planes to the more fuel-efficient, 76-seat Q400 twin-engine turboprops last year has led the airline to re-evaluate its service in a number of communities where the larger planes can't be filled.
Though Walla Walla never generated enough customers to maintain the three nonstop flights to Seattle, Horizon was able to postpone a service reduction here by coupling with Pasco for the midday flight earlier this year.
"Rather than just cut one of (the flights) entirely, as an interim measure to see if we could maintain three flights we tried to combine one with the Tri-Cities, and it has just not worked out," Russo said this morning.
"As much as possible we've tried not to cut the flights in half," he said. "But at some point you have to make decisions based on how many flights you can have and still be profitable."
He said Horizon plans to serve Walla Walla with its 6:50 a.m. and 5:10 p.m. nonstop flights to Seattle. Inbound flights would depart Seattle at 3:40 and 7:50 p.m., a schedule that would not be ideal for Walla Walla air travel, said Paul Schneidmiller, Port of Walla Walla commissioner and the owner of World Wide Travel Service.
Schneidmiller said the proposed schedule puts two inbound flights only four hours apart from one another and both in the latter part of the day.
"We now have a schedule that I believe sets us up for failure," Schneidmiller said this morning.
He plans to travel to Seattle next week with Port of Walla Walla Executive Director Jim Kuntz and members of the Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce Air Travel Coalition to lobby for a different schedule. Schneidmiller said the group hopes to convince the airline to move one of the two flights from Seattle to Walla Walla to about 12:30 p.m.
"I feel very good about the early departure from Walla Walla to Seattle and the return flight from Seattle back to Walla Walla," he said. "But I'm just not as optimistic that the way they have that second flight structured is going to be successful -- for local traffic or connecting."
Schneidmiller said there's likely no chance the community can convince the airline to maintain the third flight at this point, though that continues to be a long-term goal.
"Our short-term goal is if we're going to have a two-flight schedule, give us a schedule that we can make work so we can prove to you we can increase the load factors."
Russo said he's aware of the group's preference. "While we can't make an immediate change, we're certainly aware of some preferences and have noted those and we'll try and do what we can," he said. He said the airline is not likely to partner with another community again. "Nobody was buying a ticket between Walla Walla and Pasco," he said. "It was generating expense and no revenue. It would be the same situation if the plane stopped in Wenatchee. It's kind of shown that the one-stop strategy is not really successful."
Despite the shortage of travelers on the Q400s, departures out of Walla Walla were up 23 percent in October and 11.3 percent for the year, Schneidmiller said. Traffic increased slightly more from Seattle to Walla Walla. Deplanements are up for the year 12.6 percent. Schneidmiller said Walla Walla is on track to break 33,000 passengers. "That number would be the highest that I'm aware of in our recorded history," he said.
Russo said though the airline plans to scale back its flights now, there's always a chance that Horizon could come back to capture more passengers.
"That's one thing with airplanes: they're an asset that can be moved around," he said.
Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8321.