New Pasco-to-LAX flight remains in holding pattern

The proposed and much anticipated Pasco-to-Los Angeles flight first announced in 2015 hasn’t taken off yet.

But local officials haven’t given up hope.

“At this point we’re in a holding pattern,” said Carl Adrian, president and CEO of TRIDEC, with no pun intended.

Adrian said the Tri-Cities is ready, but it’s just a matter of finding an airline willing to step up.

“We’ve just got to find the right match,” he said.

Randy Hayden, the Port of Pasco’s executive director, said adding a new route for an airline can be a challenge.

“The reason (airlines) give us (for not doing it yet) is aircraft availability,” Hayden said. “Pilot availability is another issue. And finding gates at LAX.”

In markets the size of the Tri-Cities, there is an industry shortage of pilots and aircraft dedicated to a new route. In addition, LAX is having a tough time finding a gate for the route.

Changing regulations for pilots aren’t helping, either.

“You used to be able to fly 12 hours as a pilot,” Adrian said. “Now it’s eight. Plus, the pilot work force is getting older.”

But Hayden said the market exists, with an estimated 150 people a day heading to LA from Pasco.

Adrian agreed: “Based on the numbers our consultant (Jack Penning) prepared, it warrants daily service. We believe we have the market. The Tri-Cities is the largest market (on the West Coast) that doesn’t have a direct flight from any of the Los Angeles Basin airports.”

In 2015, the Tri-Cities Airport received a $750,000 Small Community Air Service Development Grant from the U.S.  Department of Transportation to help with the startup costs for an airline to launch a new route.

In addition, another $257,091 in local cash pledges were added to the pot to clear $1 million. After $108,091 in airport landing fees (based on two Pasco-to-LAX flights a day), the biggest pledge is $50,000 from TRIDEC.

Another $20,000 is pledged from Visit Tri-Cities, while $10,000 each is being pledged by Franklin County, Benton County, the cities of Pasco, Kennewick and Richland, Port of Kennewick and Port of Benton.

The Tri-Cities has enough business firepower to keep after the route with Hayden, Adrian, Penning, Ron Foraker, director of airports, and Buck Taft, deputy director of airports, working together.

“I think we’ve got a unique partnership with the airport director and the consultant,” Adrian said.

Foraker says everyone has worked as a team.

“We have met with multiple carriers that serve the Tri-Cities now on multiple occasions,” he said.

“We’ve talked to Alaska, Delta, American, Sky West, United,” Adrian said. “We made a presentation to all of them, then we had a second opportunity to speak to many of them at a conference.”

But no airline is making the move just yet. The Tri-Cities Area Journal of Business sought comment from each, but only two responded.

“We continually review new market opportunities and do not disclose specifics for competitive reasons,” said Jonathan Guerin, senior manager for public relations for United Airlines.

“The network planning team continually evaluates our network, looking at supply and demand,” said LaKesha Brown, spokeswoman for American Airlines. “Every new market opportunity is taken in the context of our overall network and resources. At this time, we do not have plans to add direct service between Pasco and Los Angeles.”

The Tri-City coalition remains undaunted, and they understand the airlines’ situation.

“Moving into a new territory for an airline is a big deal, with all of the setup fees,” Foraker said. “The timing for Alaska acquiring Virgin doesn’t help us. A lot of it has to do with the timing of the airline.”

Both Adrian and Foraker also said the grant’s timeline won’t expire any time soon.

“The grant is in a two-year window, with the opportunity to request an extension,” Adrian said. “The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) was pretty agreeable to extending the window.”

Foraker says the group keeps the government informed.

“We send quarterly reports to the DOT to tell them what we’re doing,” he said.

“And the way the grant is written, it could be any of the LA airports (LAX, John Wayne, Ontario, Long Beach, Burbank). But LAX would be the first choice,” Adrian said.

Acquiring a Pasco-to-Los Angeles air route would provide plenty of benefits, Hayden said.

Chief among them is providing critical access to investors, businesses and professionals in the Los Angeles Basin to support business development in the Tri-Cities. Such a route also would open up potential new markets in the LA Basin for Tri-City businesses and attract new visitors to the Tri-Cities.

More competition between the airlines could lead to reduced airfares in the region.

Internationally, it likely would mean better connections to Mexico destinations. The top foreign destination out of the Tri-Cities is Guadalajara.

The Tri-Cities Airport has been big business for the area.

The Port of Pasco, which owns and operates the facility, expects the airport will have an operating budget of nearly $8 million for 2017. Airlines are projected to pay the airport an estimated $2.7 million in rent in 2017.

The 2016 estimate for expenses at the airport was $6.2 million.

Still, things could be better, Foraker said.

“We feel we’re losing a significant amount of passengers to Seattle, Portland and Spokane,” he said. “If these passengers can come here without having to come to another airport, everybody would be better off.”

So the key words for Tri-Citians are patience and persistence, officials said.

“Even if an airline said they could do it today, we’d have to wait for it to happen next spring,” Adrian said. “So we’ll continue to pitch this. We want to make sure (the airlines) don’t forget about this opportunity.”

Foraker agreed.

“I’d love to tell you it’s going to happen this year, but I don’t want to lie to you,” he said. “These things take time.”

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