Tri-Cities Airport eyes increased flight capacity

Following a successful effort to land a daily, nonstop flight to Los Angeles, the Tri-Cities Airport is setting a course for adding capacity to existing routes.

“I think that’s more realistic than trying to get some new market when you don’t have any grant dollars,” said Buck Taft, director of the airport. “Add capacity to the current market, like keeping the Airbus year-round to Salt Lake, or adding the second Minneapolis flight full time, or adding a bigger plane to Minneapolis. Or a second San Francisco (route). That’s what we’re working on, building capacity to our current markets.”

The flight to Los Angeles is a “game changer for the Tri-Cities tourism industry,” said Michael Novakovich, president and chief executive officer of Visit Tri-Cities. “The convenience of a direct flight is a great opportunity for us to increase travel to the Tri-Cities region.”

Taft said much of that skews toward business travel.

“We’re a business market so we’re a little bit higher fare. We have a very good fare for the airlines, and I think it’s a competitive fare when you look out there as a whole. You can fly out of the Tri-Cities just as cheap as anywhere, if you can be flexible in your schedule,” he said.

The schedule for the daily, nonstop flight to LA uses a 76-seat Embraer 175 or 50-seat CRJ 200 aircraft. Only the larger aircraft has first-class seating. The flight arrives in Pasco about 3:30 p.m. daily and departs to LAX about an hour later.

While Taft has more conservative expectations about the next service expansion for the airport, he’d still like to offer additional nonstop routes, including possible locations like Phoenix, Dallas and Chicago, in no particular order. Still, “we’re the second-largest airport in the U.S. that doesn’t have service to Phoenix,” Taft said.

Allegiant flies from Pasco to Mesa, Arizona, which is about 32 miles outside of Phoenix.

The process of getting a new route isn’t just a matter of requesting service from an airline.

Taft likens it to “speed dating” at air service conferences. The Tri-Cities Airport contracts with Volaire Aviation, an air service development consultant.

“They know people in the airlines, they know how airlines work. They have relationships with those different airlines. We want to hire that experience,” Taft said.

Many may assume the airline and airport industries have a lot of crossover, but Taft says this isn’t so. “You’re either airline people or you’re airport people. Sometimes they blend, but usually you choose a route and that’s the route you go down,” he said.

Taft works with Volaire to line up meetings with airlines at conferences. Airlines have to agree to meet with the local team, which is then given 20 minutes to make a pitch for Pasco, which includes a presentation tailored for the particular airline.

“We tell them about the community, what’s going on here,” Taft said. “We do a general overlay of where all the airports are around us and how we are pretty isolated. We try and build our case for why you would want to come to the Tri-Cities.”

Taft also covers regional highlights, like the Manhattan Project becoming the nation’s newest National Historical Park, along with the millions spent for research at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and on Hanford cleanup.

“That’s usually an eye opener. Between the lab and Hanford, the amount of money that comes into our economy gets people’s attention,” Taft said.

PNNL has an increased travel demand between Pasco and Knoxville, Tennessee, with the national laboratory in Oak Ridge. “That’s stuff that we can show them. There’s a connection between the two,” Taft said.

The airport director said when it comes to incumbent airlines like United, Alaska and Delta, the airlines are already aware of the market and the team can get right down to business about future routes: “Let’s talk about LA, let’s talk about Denver, let’s talk about San Francisco,” he said.

For airlines not currently servicing the Tri-Cities, the presentation covers the growing population in and around the region. Totals from 2017 census figures estimate nearly a million people live within 90 minutes of the Tri-Cities Airport and about half of them within an hour’s drive. Still fewer than half of the available market is traveling out of the airport—what Taft refers to as “leakage.”

“Right now we’re only capturing 42 percent of the market, where 21 percent go to Seattle, 10 percent go to Portland, 3 percent to Spokane. Others use Walla Walla and Yakima. So we’ll show there’s still passengers we’re leaking that we could capture if we had the flights here,” Taft said.

During the 20-minute presentation, the airport director also packs in details about fares.

“Those are important to them because they want to make money as well,” he said.

He provides updates on current passenger loads, which reflect the average number of seats filled on each flight.

“Right now we’re at an 85 percent load factor for the third quarter of 2018. So that’s very high,” Taft said. He was unsure of how this compares to other airports of a similar size but knows it is considered “very good.”

The “speed dating” style of air service conferences has its place for airports looking to add service, but Taft still would prefer to attend the annual meetings at an airline’s home base, referred to as “headquarters meetings.”

Not all airlines provide this opportunity and not all airports are invited to these, but Taft finds “it’s more personal. You can sit down in their environment where they’re comfortable and talk to them. They’re not overwhelmed by other airports and they’re focused on you. I think headquarters meetings go the furthest. The best bang for your buck.”

Taft said just being invited to headquarters meetings is a reflection of Pasco’s strength in the market.

The addition of the daily, nonstop flight to LAX was not just the result of a 20-minute presentation or a singular headquarters meeting. It came after the airport received a federal Small Community Air Service Development program grant.

Local entities and businesses kicked in additional funding, which incentivized United Airlines to begin the service.

Carl Adrian, president and chief executive officer of the Tri-City Development Council, said he wasn’t sure this would have happened if it wasn’t for regional collaboration and “broad base of community support to provide matching funding.”

Still, when the phone call came from United to announce the service, Taft described the moment as “surreal.” 

“We had gotten a lot of, ‘It’s not you, it’s me.’ LA was having a lot of issues with construction and gate space. For them to throw a flight in here, they would have to get rid of another flight. Once the gates came open, United said it probably wouldn’t be for another year or so. And then they’re like, ‘Hey, we’re going to start in March.’ Huh? What? I didn’t know how to react. I was shocked,” Taft said.

LAX had been the region’s largest unserved market, and with a flight now departing in the late afternoon, travelers can connect directly from LA to 32 other destinations including Hawaii, Mexico, Asia and Australia.

The United service to LAX began in early spring, allowing the airport to celebrate first, and then focus on its next goals for service, including the potential priorities of increased capacity or new routes.

This will be done through the use of the air service consultant, air service conferences and headquarters meetings, but there is no additional grant in place.

“There’s not one single way to do this,” Taft said. “A bigger airport might have the staff to do it in house. Airports do things differently, like businesses do things differently. This is how we do it here.”

More than 785,000 passengers flew through the Tri-Cities airport last year alone, marking its busiest year on record. The airport followed that up with a 17 percent increase year over year for outbound passengers between the first quarters of 2018 and 2019. This included a difficult winter with airport closures due to severe weather conditions.

Global aviation database Official Aviation Guide named the airport one of North America’s busiest small airports for 2019, with 518,405 scheduled seats booked between June 2018 to May 2019.

Taft said the airport is on pace to meet or exceed 2018’s overall figures. The airport is currently served by Alaska, Allegiant, Delta and United offering flights to Seattle, San Francisco, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Denver, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix-Mesa, Arizona.

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