Alaska to trim outbound flights from Walla Walla

The plan is to drop the mid-afternoon flight on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from June through August, officials said.

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WALLA WALLA - Alaska Airlines will ground some of its midweek flights here this summer as a way to cut costs in one of its worst-performing markets, officials said today.

Despite a travel year for the record books in 2011, Walla Walla continues to be an underperforming market, Port of Walla Walla Executive Director Jim Kuntz told a roomful of business representatives at the agency's Economic Development Advisory Committee meeting.

Starting in June, the airline will reduce its flights Tuesdays and Wednesdays to one outbound flight per day. The early morning flight will continue to operate. The schedule will remain through August. In the fall, the mid-afternoon flight will be reinstated, Kuntz said.

A coalition of local business leaders, including from the Port, Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce, Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance and private business will meet with Alaska's chief executive officer, Brad Tilden, on April 5 in Seattle to discuss what can be done to help stabilize service in Walla Walla.

"We're going to have a very interesting conversation," Kuntz said. "One flight per day is not acceptable out of our community."

He said air travel is an imperative economic link for the community, and Alaska sets the gold standard for air service. He said the hope is to find ways to keep the service alive in the community. That includes a better understanding on this side of the airline's operating costs, Kuntz said.

Air travel in Walla Walla rose to its second-highest level in history last year, and reached that on one less daily flight than it had during its record year in 2009.

Last year 32,127 passengers flew from Walla Walla to Seattle. That figure was up from 29,050 the year before. The highest year on record was 33,430 in 2009.

Slightly fewer people than that flew into Walla Walla from Seattle. Last year 32,002 people stepped off the plane into the community. That figure buried the previous year's 28,592, but was down from 2009's 33,898.

Airport and travel officials attributed the strong numbers to public awareness campaigns designed to encourage residents to fly from Walla Walla. Among the benefits touted were free parking, cost and time savings from not commuting to other airports, support for the local economy, and fringe benefits, including free Wi-Fi and coffee.

Flight service has been up and down over the last decade with scheduling and fleet changes, reflective of greater struggles in the airline industry overall, officials have said.

Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce Chief Executive Officer David Woolson said rising fuel and other operating costs have been at the helm of changing models in air travel for communities all over the country. Walla Walla is no different, he said.

"While ridership has been up, the fact is Alaska has a business model and at this point we're not meeting it as far as its profitability," Woolson said.

The Chamber has led an Air Travel Coalition that for the last several years has led the Fly Walla Walla First campaign. Woolson said more innovative ideas such as that and the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance's "Taste and Tote" initiative from last year that waived tasting fees at more than 70 wineries and the $20 baggage handling fee on the first case of wine checked on outbound Walla Walla flights may be needed.

"The question really is how can we get as creative as possible to try to maintain the business relationship," Woolson said.

"The attitude going in is how can we be good marketing and business partners and find a viable solution? It's not going to be easy. I think we have to be very realistic."

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

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