Tri-City's Travel Hopes Ride on Horizon

Susan Waldo of Kennewick loves to travel to Seattle with her family for fun weekends.

But like many Tri-Citians she ends up driving across the state when she'd really like to fly.

Pricey airfares to Northwest destinations and beyond put a damper on boardings last year at the Tri-Cities Airport after years of steady increases.

But airfares alone were not to blame, as one of the region's major airlines pulled out its bigger planes to move them to more lucrative routes.

Still, at least one airline wants to capture the Tri-Cities' increasing travel demands, thanks to the lobbying efforts of the Tri-City Development Council.

Beginning April 8, Horizon Air will begin using 74-seater turboprop Q400s for some of its seven daily flights to Seattle.

The new planes will add a total of 78 seats a day. Those replace smaller 37-seat planes, said Jen Boyer, Horizon's media relations manager.

Horizon also flies to Portland five times a day and two times to Pendleton.

Boyer said TRIDEC officials convinced the airline there's a demand and need for better service in the Tri-Cities.

Most of the airlines agree that Tri-Cities is a good market but they say other areas offer even better opportunities, said Carl Adrian, president of TRIDEC, which has lobbied hard to protect and expand Tri-City air services.

But that effort took a blow last year when the Pasco airport, the third-largest carrier airport in Washington state, saw an annual drop of more than 5 percent in passenger boardings.

Last year, 225,880 passengers flew out of the Tri-Cities, compared to 239,320 the year before. But before that boardings had been growing steadily, including a jump of 24,000 from 2004.

Airport Director Jim Morasch said last year's decline was because Delta replaced its 737 planes to Salt Lake City with smaller 50-70 seater regional jets in December 2005.

It was part of Delta's financial restructuring after the airline filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy earlier that year, he said.

Still an increase in seat availability may not mean cheaper fares, aviation experts say.

The Tri-City market doesn't have a large enough population to sustain long- term demand, said aviation consultant Mike Boyd.

"(Airlines) are not in the business to carry more people but make more money," said Boyd, president of the Boyd Group, an aviation consultant based in Evergreen, Colo.

A relatively small population base means fewer discounted seats, he said, adding that air service to small communities is considered to be less profitable.

"Pasco ain't Philadelphia," he said.

Airlines price their seats on demand and competition, and typically offer lower fares on 10 percent of the total seats.

Because most airlines use small planes in markets the size of the Tri-Cities, the limited cheaper fares disappear rather quickly, Boyd said. The small passenger base also increases an airlines overhead costs.

The Tri-Cities Airport handles about 25 flights a day, and offers direct services to Seattle, Portland, Salt Lake City, Denver and Las Vegas.

Boyd said it's cheaper to fly out of Spokane than the Tri-Cities because of the lower per-seat cost. But it's possible to get a reasonable price on longer flights, even from the Tri-Cities, though there are no guarantees.

Delta spokesman Anthony Black said in an e-mail that prices vary based on the availability of seats on a particular day.

"Delta offers a competitive price for all of the markets it serves. That said, there is a cost that smaller markets incur because of the convenient proximity of the airport and its services," Black wrote.

In January, Horizon announced the July 1 start of nonstop jet service from Spokane to Sacramento and Los Angeles. Horizon's Boyer said the airline analyzed travel data to make sure enough people were traveling to those destinations.

"You can't set up a route on an expert's recommendation alone," she said.

And aviation experts say the availability of discount air carriers in Spokane has also hurt efforts to get better Tri-City service.

Like many Mid-Columbians, Rick and Shelley Weigel of Kennewick say they don't mind driving 2 1/2 hours to Spokane to catch a flight because the savings often are substantial.

Passenger Susan Waldo agreed. She saved $600 by flying out of Spokane with her husband to Little Rock, Ark., in January 2006.

Kris Watkins, president of the Tri-Cities Visitor and Convention Bureau, is concerned that tourists visiting other Northwest cities forgo a trip here because of a lack of available airline seats and they don't want to drive too far.

Adrian said TRIDEC's Air Service Task Force, a group of business and community leaders, continue to work with airlines.

Horizon reduced fares to Seattle and Portland by more than 30 percent in October 2005, he said.

Boyd said airlines have no reason to reduce the Tri-City fares because the passenger loads hover around 72 percent to 87 percent on flights.

But he also believes Tri-City passengers are not being gouged. Airfare prices are reflecting the true costs of air travel and what the market can afford, he said.