WALLA WALLA -- A temporary reduction in flights this summer has raised fears that Alaska Airlines may be poised for a final departure from the Valley.
The Seattle carrier will ground one inbound and outbound flight on Tuesdays and Wednesdays this summer. Airline officials have told the Port the company is losing money in the local market, though it plans to restore its normal two round-trip flights per day in the fall.
But passenger numbers will need to improve for it to continue, they say.
The announcement has launched a study of Walla Walla's travel needs, creation of a soon-to-come marketing campaign, meetings with representatives of the Valley's major companies, a plan to seek federal grant funds for marketing and a temporary reduction in fees to the airline as an incentive to buy time to build ridership.
Last year was the second busiest for the Walla Walla Regional Airport, which is operated by the Port of Walla Walla. Numbers so far this year, fueled in part by growing tourism, are on track to surpass 2011.
But the level of growth needed can only be attained by overcoming what might be the biggest obstacle in the market: changing travel habits for passengers who for a variety of reasons book out of Pasco, a 45-minute drive from Walla Walla to an airport that offers more airlines and more destinations than just Seattle.
"There is a significant percentage of travelers out of the Walla Walla area that go directly to the Tri-Cities without even checking the Walla Walla schedule," said Port of Walla Walla Commissioner Paul Schneidmiller, who owns World Wide Travel.
He and other community and business leaders in Walla Walla believe some passengers might change their minds by learning more about the benefits of flying from Walla Walla -- it's closest to home, has free parking, terminal amenities and the same cost as Pasco to fly on Alaska to Seattle
What's happening to Walla Walla is also occuring nationally at other small markets served by regional carriers. Flight reductions sparked by fuel prices, fewer passenger sales due to the long recession and other changes have trickled down to throttle back smaller airlines.
In April 2011, Alaska Airlines told Port of Walla Walla officials the market was profitable with an average 60 percent load factor, though it wasn't meeting the company's projected return on investment.
Alaska now tells them it needs an 80 percent load factor to achieve a 10 percent profit margin, though local officials have said Alaska might agree to simply breaking even to stay in a market that holds promise as a tourism destination.
Port Executive Director Jim Kuntz has said another 3,500 passengers a year could meet that goal.
After Port commissioners this spring agreed to waive more than $42,000 in operating fees, airline spokeswoman Marianne Lindsey released a statement:
"... Although we are grateful to the Port of Walla Walla commissioners for extending some of the fee savings to us, those savings alone unfortunately won't be enough to ensure our ability to offer the schedule and low fares that we do in Walla Walla."
Port commissioners may consider eliminating another $40,000 in lease and landing fees to the airline pending a study on the legalities of such a waiver.
Airport Manager Jennifer Skoglund wants a commitment the airline will stay.
"They could come back in six months and say, 'Thank you, but we're still leaving,'" she said. "If we're going to give them money, we need something in return."
Port Commissioner Ron Dunning doesn't like the message such waivers will send. "It puts an idea out there that if you're a company in trouble you can come to the Port and we'll write your rent down," he said.
Schneidmiller said a retention effort is for the good of the community.
"Without commercial air service in and out of Walla Walla our job becomes much tougher to recruit business," he said.
Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at 509-526-8321 or firstname.lastname@example.org