The decision by Alaska Airlines to trim service in and out of Walla Walla two days of the week during the summer is very concerning. It opens the door to trim service further, which could eventually lead to local air service being halted.
Air service is critical to the tourism industry. It serves to get tourists into the area. It gets those who promote the Valley and its products, such as wine, out of the area to spread the word.
Affordable and dependable air service is essential to companies based in Walla Walla -- Banner Bank, Key Technology and Coffey Communications, for example. Whitman College, Walla Walla University and Walla Walla Community College also count on easy access to air travel.
Although we don't like this decision, we understand why Alaska made it. It's about trying to make a profit in the Walla Walla market.
Starting in June, Alaska willreduce its flights Tuesdays and Wednesdays to one outbound flight per day. The early morning flight will continue to operate. The 2 p.m. inbound flight will be canceled as will the 2:40 outbound flight. The 8:49 p.m. flight will then be the only inbound flight of the day. The current schedule is expected to resume in the fall.
Ironically, air travel in and out of Walla Walla was at a near-record level.
But Jim Kuntz, executive director of the Port of Walla Walla, which oversees the airport, said Walla Walla continues to be an underperforming market in comparison to the other locations Alaska serves.
The next step is for a coalition of local business leaders -- Port, Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce, Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance and private business -- to meet with Alaska's chief executive officer, Brad Tilden, on Thursday in Seattle.
Walla Walla should have at least two flights in and out a day to accommodate those catching connecting flights out of Seattle and business travelers who need to make a quick trip over the Cascades.
Flying out of Pasco, which is less than an hour away, is an option but it is not nearly as convenient or cost effective as going out of Walla Walla. It takes an extra hour each way to get to the airport, the trip through security can be longer than in Walla Walla and parking at the Pasco airport is $7 a day. Parking is free in Walla Walla.
With service reduced on Tuesdays and Wednesdays those having to travel on those days will opt to either fly out of Tri-Cities or drive to Seattle. In time, more and more people will get conditioned to not consider flying Walla Walla first. Alaska might look to reduce flights further, thus triggering a spiral.
Such a scenario would make it tougher to do business out of Walla Walla and make it an even bigger challenge recruiting new companies to the Valley.
Let's hope the coalition can work with Alaska to come up with creative way to boost ticket sales to reach an acceptable level of profitability.
At the very least we would hope they can find ways to keep the current level of service.