Nov. 6--YAKIMA, Wash. -- Last month, Horizon Air officials visited Yakima to promote its service to and from Seattle in hopes of boosting passenger levels.
Local and airline officials generally agree the visit was a positive one.
"I thought the meetings were very honest and very productive," said Yakima Air Terminal manager Mike Redmond.
The visit, however, also illustrated the struggle small communities such as Yakima have in gaining more air service while airlines cut flights and make other operating cuts to stay viable during the economic recession.
The local business community believes that it needs more service, whether it's through more flights from Horizon or the recruitment of another airline to the area.
"What they were saying (during the Horizon meeting) is that 'We support you, Horizon, but you've got a huge market you're not tapping," said Mike Morrisette, CEO and president of the Greater Yakima Chamber of Commerce and a member of the Yakima Air Terminal board.
Horizon Air officials point out they have made changes in the past year to make service more convenient to Yakima travelers, such as moving the last flight from Seattle back a few hours, to allow passengers on later flights to make that final connection.
Doing so actually added $354,000 to Horizon's annual costs because the later flight required an extra crew for the first flight the next day. With an earlier flight, the same crew could be used for the next day's early morning flight.
Dan Russo, Horizon Air's vice president of marketing and communications, emphasizes the importance of promoting the service and improving boardings. The bottom line is how many passengers are filling those planes.
And at the moment, the numbers don't look so good. Passenger loads for Horizon flights to and from the Yakima airport have dropped from 74 percent in January to 47 percent in September.
In general, the airline needs plane loads to be in the 60 percent range to be financially viable, but that can vary greatly depending on operating and passenger ticket costs, Russo said.
With business travel declining, it's likely that planes need to be more full as passengers are likely paying lower fares, he said.
During the meeting, Horizon talked about no-cost ways to promote existing service, such as mentioning the service in e-mails or linking to the airline on company Web sites.
"The situation in Yakima is that we've been there for 25 years and sometimes things like that can be taken for granted," Russo said.
Local officials say people are more likely to fly out of Yakima if they have more choices for destinations.
They point to when Delta Air Lines began offering service between Yakima and Salt Lake City in June 2007. During the 14 months the Atlanta-based carrier offered service, flight loads for flights departing from Yakima didn't drop below 63 percent and were as high as 88 percent.
And despite Delta's presence, Horizon Air's loads showed a similar range.
Overall passenger counts were also higher when Delta was providing service from Yakima. The airport had 54,825 passengers departing from the Yakima airport during the first nine months of 2008.
In the first nine months of this year, the number of departing passengers totaled 44,751, an 18.4 percent drop.
"What that tells you is that there (was) an underserved market," said Redmond. "When there was an alternate service, the people came."
Soon after Delta began offering service here, the airline industry was faced with two back-to-back events.
In the summer of 2008, oil prices spiraled dramatically to upwards of $160 per barrel. With airlines unwilling to increase fares in a price-sensitive market, airlines began cutting services in markets across the country.