Walla Walla must maintain air service

Reducing Port of Walla Walla fees charged to Alaska Airlines is a reasonable approach to keeping the airline flying here.


Let's not kid ourselves. Walla Walla needs Alaska Airlines more than the carrier needs this community and its business.

Given that reality, Walla Walla and its officials need to make some concessions to keep full air service seven days a week.

Unfortunately, despite an increase in passenger traffic locally, Alaska is not making a profit in this market. Walla Walla is the lowest performing destination on its route system.

In an effort to save money, Alaska is trimming this summer some of its Walla Walla flights on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. And although the grounded flights are supposed to be back on the schedule in the fall, there is no guarantee. In addition, it's certainly possible Alaska could decide the reduced schedule works better for it and might opt to trim service year round.

All this is a concern for the Walla Walla Valley, which has an economy that depends on business travelers and tourists being able to fly in and out of Seattle and beyond.

The Port of Walla Walla, which oversees the Walla Walla Regional Airport, is looking at a way to help make the airline profitable to ensure long-term air service for the Valley.

"I think some serious decisions are going to have to be made by our elected officials," said Jim Kuntz, the Port's executive director. "We cannot get there by increasing passenger traffic alone."

The Port collects about $160,000 a year in operating fees from Alaska. That includes about $43,000 a year for building rental from the airline, and another $28,800 in landing fees.

Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce's Air Travel Coalition has suggested reducing some of those fees as a way to keep Alaska flying to and from Walla Walla. Port officials will also reach out to the Port of Seattle to see if fees might be reduced on the Sea-Tac end of the flight.

These seem like reasonable steps. Even if the local Port reduced the $160,000 in fees to $1 it still might economic sense. The entities that have employees fly frequently -- Coffee Communications, Nelson Irrigation, Whitman College and the wine industry, for example -- depend on relatively fast and easy access in and out of Walla Walla. Tourists also depend on air service to get to Walla Walla

Flying out of Pasco is not as cost efficient for business travelers.

The reality Walla Walla faces is that the Port, which is supported by tax dollars, might have to significantly subsidize air service to keep Alaska flying.

U-B Publisher Rob Blethen, who is on the Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce Board, did not partipate in the discussion or writing of this column.


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