2012 shaping up as banner year for local air travel

The summertime cutback in flights doesn't appear to have made much of a dent in ridership.

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WALLA WALLA -- Air travel is on track for one of its best years, despite a decrease in flights during the summer months.

With one month left to track in the year, passenger numbers were at their third-highest level for the year through November, according to the latest numbers from the Walla Walla Regional Airport.

Through November the airport has had 28,673 paid passenger enplanements. That's down just 1.2 percent from last year's 29,066 enplanements through November. Both figures are off from the busiest travel year on record at the airport -- 2009, when year-to-date for the 11-month period were 29,964.

Deplanements -- or travel on inbound flights -- is down a little more at 1.8 percent for the year. Through November, 28,655 paid passengers came into Walla Walla, compared to 29,195 last year.

Even with a busy December not marred by the cancellation of several flights as was the case this week, Port of Walla Walla officials did not expect the passenger load to catch up to last year's levels given the loss of flights between June and August.

However, officials have been pleasantly surprised at the numbers. Even better is that load factors -- the percentage of seats filled on each flight -- are up on inbound and outbound flights. With fewer flights to spread the passenger load over this year, the load factor is averaging closer to the airline's goal.

"I would not have predicted that we would have been close to last year's numbers with the flight cancellations," said Port Commissioner and World Wide Travel Service owner Paul Schneidmiller.

Airport Manager Jennifer Skoglund said she, too, is encouraged by what appears to be a positive trend for air travel in and out of the local airport. Skoglund said Alaska's decision to ground some of its midweek flights last summer has sparked a number of initiatives designed to motivate travelers to fly local if possible for the sake of saving air service.

"I think it's definitely gotten the community to talk about this issue," she said. "Maybe people who weren't flying locally are trying."

Alaska Air, Walla Walla's only commercial carrier, trimmed its schedule June 4-Aug. 27, reducing the daily flights to Seattle to one Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Airport officials say they were told the airline needed to reduce the schedule because Walla Walla is an underperforming market.

As expected, enplanements were down during those months compared to 2011. But when the flights were restored, Walla Walla posted increases in enplanements during September and October. Schneidmiller said despite the decline in passengers during the summer months, the airline reported it had been profitable in the market.

The attention to the numbers is vital as the airline seeks profitability in all of its markets, officials say.

The target number is centered around the load factor versus actual passengers, Schneidmiller said. But the target changes for the airline depending on operating costs, including fuel prices, added Skoglund. Locally officials are hoping to average at least a 70 percent load factor, but higher is better, they say.

Officials are also counting on $250,000 in federal Small Community Air Development Grant funds to help promote the cause. The airport landed the two-year grant, which includes a $50,000 local match. The money is to be used over a two-year period on a comprehensive marketing campaign to support existing and build new air service.

Schneidmiller said officials met with representatives of Alaska Air's recommended marketing firm to begin devising a marketing plan last week.

During this year Port commissioners also eliminated $42,600 in aircraft rescue firefighting funds it normally would have charged the airline between July and December as an incentive for the airline to maintain service. They also reduced other costs, too. Schneidmiller said Port commissioners have not yet discussed whether to continue the cost reductions into 2013. He said he believes that conversation may take place in January.

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