May 7 -- Nearly 240,000 passenger boarded planes at the Tri-Cities Airport last year, officials say the Pasco airport will not likely be upgraded beyond its coach role of "feeder" airport.
"We don't have the population base," said Jim Morasch, airport manager.
Morasch said there was nearly an 11 percent increase in the number of passengers boarding from 2004-05, this year has already seen a 3 percent decrease.
That's not because there isn't demand for seats. There simply aren't as many available.
"The problem is that the industry is in shambles," Morasch said. "There are a limited number of seats compared to a year ago."
Not just in the Tri-Cities, but nationwide, he said.
"I was in Salt Lake City last week and it reminded me of 2000 -- wall-to-wall people and every airplane full," he said.
Every major airline is fighting to stay afloat, restructuring and pinching pennies.
For small, regional airports, like the Tri-Cities, that has resulted in 737s -- which carry about 140 passengers -- being replaced with smaller planes that carry only 50.
It's a trend the airport has been experiencing, and fighting, for two years.
Kris Johnson, president and CEO of the Tri-Cities Regional Chamber of Commerce and a member of the Tri-City Industrial Development Council's task force that deals with air transportation issues, said the group has made several visits to various carriers during the past year asking for additional and new service.
"It's critically important to have affordable and adequate air service," Johnson said. "The conversation hasn't just been centered on price, but about getting larger aircraft."
Morasch said although it may be difficult and expensive to get flights out of the Tri-Cities for the rest of the year, he believes it will get easier by 2007.
There's a possibility that Horizon may replace its Dash 8 planes, which seat about 35 people, with a new Q 400, a faster plane with twice the seating capacity.
In addition, he's hoping new carriers will look at opportunities in the Tri-Cities.
In the meantime, Morasch's advice to travelers: Plan early and look around.
"If you are savvy on the Internet you can do very well," he said.
But to get good deals, travelers may have to drive first to take off out of Spokane, Seattle or Portland.
Morasch said although he believes there is better air service to come in the Tri-Cities, it's unlikely the airport will ever attract the major carriers.
"I see the connection carriers -- Skywest, United Express and Horizon, as being our main market, unless a special low-cost carrier like Jet Blue comes in," he said. "But we will never have Southwest."
Southwest looks for markets that will support seven to nine flights a day initially and grow to 13 flights a day within the first year, he said.
"We just don't have the population base," Morasch said.
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