Survey part of air service plan

Local leaders hope to bolster traffic at the airport as a cut in flights looms.

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WALLA WALLA -- A new survey of consumer travel habits is part of the latest strategy to help stabilize air service in Walla Walla, officials say.

A coalition of local business and government leaders is working to bolster passenger numbers after Alaska Airlines told them it will temporarily trim its Walla Walla service this summer.

The findings from the survey, expected to be distributed to businesses and open to other travelers in the next week or so, will be presented with a marketing plan to Alaska executives next month, said Duane Wollmuth, executive director of the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance.

The new efforts are the result of a meeting between local representatives and Alaska officials a little more than a week ago.

"We talked a lot about trying to understand people's travel behaviors and their needs," Wollmuth said.

He said the airline seems committed to serving rural markets, but that has to be a profitable endeavor.

Over the last year and a half Alaska has altered its flight service, discontinuing some flights, reducing others and adding new ones to improve profitability. As the services have changed, Walla Walla has ended up as the airline's least profitable market, officials said.

Consequently, the airline plans to cut one inbound and one outbound flight Tuesdays and Wednesdays starting in June. The early morning flight will continue to operate, and an inbound flight will land in the evening. That schedule will remain through August, Port of Walla Walla and Walla Walla Regional Airport officials have said. The mid-afternoon outbound flight reportedly will be reinstated in the fall.

The change was announced by Port Executive Director Jim Kuntz during a March 27 Economic Development Advisory Committee meeting. A little more than a week later, representatives of the airport, Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce, wine alliance and other agencies attended a meeting in Seattle with Alaska President and incoming Chief Executive Officer Brad Tilden; Andrew Harrison, vice president, planning and revenue management; and Joe Sprague, vice president, marketing.

Walla Walla Regional Airport Manager Jennifer Skoglund said she was encouraged by the interaction. She said airline executives plan to provide benchmarks to help local operators set goals for the community.

Air travel has continued to rise in Walla Walla. Last year 32,127 passengers flew from Walla Walla to Seattle. That's one of the largest numbers on record. But it may not be enough to sustain service.

Skoglund said efforts to promote the free parking, convenience and price matching with the Pasco Airport on Alaska's flights to Seattle haven't entirely curbed the loss of air passengers to Pasco, where more airlines offer service and to multiple destinations.

A study 15 years ago showed Walla Walla loses about 50 percent of its potential air travelers to Pasco. Skoglund said she wouldn't be surprised if the figure held even today. Alaska also recently announced it will launch a new daily nonstop flight to Portland starting Aug. 27. For those used to making the drive from this area or even traveling on Pendleton's SeaPort Airlines to Portland, the new flight could lure even more people to Pasco.

"Can we change the way people do things?" Skoglund wondered.

That may be one of the key findings of the new survey, Wollmuth said.

He said it's possible the survey of travel habits and needs may be distributed through the Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce, in addition to businesses known for frequent flying. "Obviously anybody who travels is somebody we would want to listen to," he said. But speed is also a factor in reporting back to Alaska mid-May. The hope is to bring the airline a picture of the needs for local air travelers, including ideal flight times.

Wollmuth said the most potential for growth lies in the tourism industry. Survey after survey of local visitors has shown numerous opportunities to convert road warriors coming from the Seattle area into air travelers. Recent efforts to entice the transition, including a "Taste and Tote" initiative that waived fees at more than 70 wineries and the $20 baggage handling fee on the first case of wine checked on outbound flights, are on the right track.

Officials believe more creative efforts could be explored to help build passenger numbers. Particularly when there's more in the community to entertain visitors over a greater number of days, such as the Power House Theatre and Walla Walla Sweets games, Wollmuth said.

Alaska officials "told us time and time again at that meeting they're very committed to the rural markets and making it happen in Walla Walla," Wollmuth said. "I have a very positive outlook on it. I just think a lot of it is working with them and coming up with ideas."

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at vickihillhouse@wwub.com or 526-8321.

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