Celebrated LAX flight grounded amid poor performance

2020 will add second San Francisco
flight, new Chicago flight

United Airlines is canceling its daily flight between Pasco and Los Angeles International Airport, citing poor performance.

But the Chicago-based airline is not abandoning the Tri-Cities Airport. In coming months, it will add a second daily flight to San Francisco International Airport and a red-eye flight to Chicago, a first for the region.

The last LA flight is Jan. 6.

The second San Francisco flight begins May 8, and the Chicago flight begins June 6. 

Buck Taft, who manages the regional airport for the Port of Pasco, said it’s unfortunate United is ending the LAX flight, but he called the airline a good partner.

“They’re trying to find stuff that works,” he said, noting that United accounts for about 17 percent of Pasco air traffic, after Delta Airlines at 42 percent and Alaska at 31 percent.

Leisure-oriented Allegiant Air accounts for 10 percent.

United’s decision to cancel one route comes as demand for air travel rises. Passenger boardings were running 12 percent ahead of 2018 in October, putting the airport on track to set a new record in 2019.

Taft and local business leaders say they’re not giving up on a daily LA flight and will continue to discuss it with all of the airlines serving Pasco.

Studies indicate that Los Angeles is a popular destination for business and leisure travelers.

“We still want a direct Los Angeles flight,” said Carl Adrian, president and chief executive officer of the Tri-City Development Council, or TRIDEC, which teamed with the port to pitch the LA flight to the airlines that serve Pasco.

“It is still the largest market without a direct flight.”

TRIDEC and the port spent years trying to secure the LA run. Allegiant Air offers seasonal service targeting leisure travelers but no daily flight.

To sweeten the pot, supporters of service to LA raised nearly $1 million in grants to guarantee the run would not lose money for the operator.

The U.S. Department of Transportation provided a $750,000 Small Community Air Service Development grant.

TRIDEC and area business provided $176,500 in local matching funds, and the Port of Pasco kicked in $20,000 for marketing.

The airport waived two years of landing fees, revenue that supports airport operations. Taft said waiving landing fees is standard industry practice to encourage airlines to schedule new routes.

If Pasco ever regains a Portland flight, it would be eligible for the waiver.

The waiver saved United the roughly $128 it costs to land a 50-seat plane in Pasco.

United announced it would start the Pasco-LA route in early 2019 and scheduled its first flight in early April, just in time for spring break. The first plane was packed with Disneyland-bound families who took off amid speeches and cake.

The first run aside, the flight struggled to earn enough revenue to cover the roughly $750,000 a month it costs to operate the run. 

Taft said the grant money ran out within three months, much faster than anyone expected.

Taft said he’s puzzled that demand didn’t materialize, but he speculates Tri-City fliers book cheaper fares on non-direct flights. Adrian said Pasco’s LA flight was ill-timed to make connections with flights leaving LA, making it a tougher sell to customers.

Taft and Adrian pledged to keep talking to airlines about restoring the LA flight, a job that could be more difficult now that the incentive funds have been exhausted.

Adrian said that should not be a barrier. Incentive money only goes so far. 

“Incentives can’t make a bad deal good,” he said.

Adrian said the loss of the LA flight shouldn’t make too much of an impact on the region. The Tri-Cities is blessed with more airlines – four – and more air connections than communities of comparable size. 

“I think Tri-City travelers are pretty fortunate,” he said.  

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