Port may slash fees for Alaska

The Port of Walla Walla's chief suggests cutting the fees charged to $1 for the rest of the year.

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WALLA WALLA -- Port of Walla Walla commissioners will consider reducing rent and fees for Alaska Airlines as a maneuver to save air service in the community.

Port Executive Director Jim Kuntz is recommending cutting back the Seattle airline's local costs to $1 for the remainder of the year. His recommendation will be presented Thursday during the Port's 7 p.m. meeting at its administrative office, 310 A St.

Cutting the air carrier's rent and eliminating its landing fees and reimbursement for aircraft rescue firefighting services for the rest of 2012 would save $81,440 for the company, Kuntz said.

The discounts are a response to meetings between members of the Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce's Air Travel Coalition and Alaska executives. The airline has told the Port it plans to reduce its schedule by one inbound and outbound daily flight Tuesdays and Wednesdays this summer.

The changes are designed to cut costs in what has become the airline's worst performing market, Air Travel Coalition representatives have said. Although Alaska has not publicly said how much money it needs to continue operating here, coalition officials say the airline has told them it is losing money. Of the 42 markets it serves, Walla Walla is 42nd in performance, they say.

The airline has said the flights to Seattle are expected to be restored in fall. But if the Port agrees to reduce the airline's operating costs, Kuntz said he would expect a guarantee that those flights will return.

Under his recommendation, the Port could meet with Alaska in the fall to determine if a rent and fee reduction is needed to continue service in 2013.

Alaska Airlines serves Walla Walla with two daily round-trip flights to Seattle.

Walla Walla's air passenger traffic has been strong in recent years.

Last year's numbers were their second highest, a feat not to be taken lightly considering it was achieved with one fewer daily flight than its best air passenger year in 2009.

In 2011, 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 passengers flew into the community last year. In 2011, 32,002 people landed at the airport. That figure buried the previous year's 28,592, but was down from 2009's 33,898.

Nevertheless the industry as a whole has faced major cutbacks due to spiking fuel prices and the recession.

The changes have been documented in numerous media reports, which have added mergers of carriers as another factor in the industry's shake-up.

As major airlines have reduced their flights to smaller markets, regional carriers that feed them have been hit, affecting travel in small communities across the country.

The three Port commissioners on Thursday could go for Kuntz's proposal or may choose an alternative of their creation.

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