WALLA WALLA — The benefits of flying local will soon be hitting airwaves, advertisements and even billboards near you this year.
Port of Walla Walla commissioners on Thursday unanimously authorized staff to proceed with a two-year commercial air marketing plan designed to boost passenger traffic with $250,000 in federal grant funds.
Under the plan, the Port also will allow Seattle carrier Alaska Airlines to manage the marketing and advertising. The airline, which serves Walla Walla with two daily flights to Seattle, is knowledgeable about potential market growth and how to target the advertising dollars, officials said.
“I think it bodes well for us for Alaska Airlines saying ‘We know your market...’” Port Executive Director Jim Kuntz said.
“It’s nice that they want to be involved. It says they’re interested in our market.”
Air service in Walla Walla has been somewhat shaky over the last year.
The airline temporarily grounded one inbound and outbound flight Tuesdays and Wednesdays during the summer. The airline told Port of Walla Walla and Walla Walla Regional Airport officials the company was losing money in the market.
The blip in services did not seem to have long-term negative effects on air travel here. Walla Walla ended the year with its third best passenger bookings in history and averaged load factors inbound and outbound around 68 percent. The load factors — the percentage of seats filled on each flight — is the key number for Alaska.
Still the Port and members of the Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce’s Air Travel Coalition continue to work stabilizing the much-needed transportation service.
The $250,000 grant was announced last August by U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. The money is part of a Small Community Air Development Grant issued through the U.S. Department of Transportation. Such grants are used to support existing air service or build new service.
Under terms of the contribution, the Port will offer a $50,000 match.
Target markets established under the plan, developed by Alaska’s manager of retail advertising and sponsorships, Clint Ostler, are Seattle, Walla Walla and the Bay Area.
Although Seattle is one of the greatest feeder markets for Walla Walla’s tourism industry, many travelers opt to drive rather than fly over. Officials believe there is huge untapped potential for air traffic there. California also has promise for wine tourism and air traffic, said Walla Walla Regional Airport Manager Jennifer Skoglund.
Community members also need the reminder about the importance of flying locally when possible rather than making the drive to Pasco to fly and paying gas and parking costs for that trip.
Under the proposal, officials will spend $202,796 on the campaign in the first year. The largest portion, $90,000, will be spent in Seattle. Another $60,000 will be focused in the Bay Area. The remaining nearly $53,000 will be focused in Walla Walla.
The breakdown of the latter includes more than $23,000 on radio ads; $16,000 for billboard advertising; $5,300 for ads in the Union-Bulletin; and $7,800 for digital display advertising with banner ads online.
In the second year, officials will spend $97,204 — $40,000 in Seattle, $30,000 in the Bay Area and the remaining more than $27,000 in Walla Walla between billboards, radio and newspaper ads. The local radio ads will promote trips to Seattle and California.
Locations of billboards had not been finalized as of Thursday’s meeting. Commissioner Mike Fredrickson suggested as an alternative, coordinators might consider spreading some of that funding into television ads.
The federal funds are not intended to supplant the airline’s own plans to spend marketing dollars building Walla Walla air travel, too, officials pointed out. The airline will work with advertising firm Wong Doody, which already handles the airline’s promotions.
Port commissioners lauded the proposal, which has some flexibility with the TV suggestion. They also were complimentary of the airline’s efforts to remain community partners.
Fredrickson said he has been approached by community residents suggesting the Port seek another airline to operate here in light of Alaska’s profitability concerns. But Fredrickson said there are no other options.
“We’re lucky to have Alaska. There really is no other (airline) beating on the door,” he said. “Not only are they the gold standard, they’re the game in town.”