Airline veteran brings new carrier to Pasco, right on schedule

A Texas-based company led by the former head of Allegiant Air is launching a new carrier April 28 with a map that includes three weekly flights between the Tri-Cities Airport in Pasco and Burbank, California. 

Houston Air Holdings Inc., formerly charter carrier Xtra Airways, announced the launch of Avelo Airlines to fly nonstop flights from its Los Angeles-area base to 11 West Coast vacation destinations, including Pasco, in early April. 

The move fulfills an aviation consultant’s 2020 prediction that Pasco could gain new routes as airlines dropped unprofitable runs because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We are thrilled to welcome Avelo Airlines to the Tri-Cities region,” said Buck Taft, director of airports for the Port of Pasco, which operates the local airport. He’s already bought a ticket to sit in the front row on the first flight.

“It’s an honor to be one of the first destinations for the airline,” he said.

Avelo’s arrival is right on schedule, coming less than a year after a Portland aviation consultant told Tri-City business leaders that the Covid-19 pandemic could lead to opportunities for airports such as Pasco that have strong business models.

It was a bold prediction by Jack Penning of Volaire Aviation Consulting, Pasco’s aviation advisor. At the time, air travel was in a state of almost total collapse after shutdowns took hold in April 2020.

Losing, not gaining, flights was the preoccupying thought of the day.

But in a May 29, 2020, “Coffee with Karl” program hosted by the Tri-City Development Council, Penning said the local airport could gain new routes or even see airlines restore the lost connection to Portland as they dropped unprofitable routes for ones frequented by business and government officials.

Avelo is not restoring the Pasco-to-Portland link, but its launch appears to affirm Penning’s belief that disruption could usher in opportunity.

A year later, he cheered news that the new airline is starting and that Pasco is one of the airports it will serve. He even offered a new prediction: Avelo will succeed with its emphasis on low-cost, nonstop flights catering to leisure travelers.

“I think Burbank is a terrific airport in the LA Basin,” he said. “The Tri-Cities has long been working to secure year-round service to LA, and this service should work well for many of the region’s travelers.”

Andrew Levy, a former Allegiant Air and United Airlines executive, is the new CEO for Houston Air Holdings. “Avelo Airlines” is the marketing name for the former charter operator.

Levy is an aviation industry veteran with a law degree from Emery University and a background in investments, according to a 2016 document filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, when he was appointed executive vice president and chief financial officer of United Continental Holdings Inc.

Two years earlier, he left Allegiant Travel Co. with a $650,000 lump sum payment and $8.5 million for his stock shares and options, according to a separate SEC document.

Levy and Houston Air Holdings raised $88 million of nearly $89 million sought to launch the airline, according to a Form D filed with the SEC in January 2020. The SEC tracks private investments as well as publicly traded companies.

Levy’s Avelo team includes former executives from Delta Air Lines, Frontier Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Northwest Airlines and Spirit Airlines.

Its fleet consists of 159-seat Boeing 737-800 aircraft, configured as a single class and decked out in purple, yellow, white and blue livery.

Avelo casts the Burbank airport as a stress-free way to access Los Angeles and its theme parks, beaches and Hollywood hot spots.

Introductory fares begin at $19, with add-on fees for both checked and carry-on bags, window and aisle seating, priority boarding, pets and other services.

The new airline arrives as Pasco, like airports everywhere, struggles to regain its footing after air travel bottomed out in 2020.

The Pasco airport recorded nearly 189,000 boardings in 2020, down 51% from the year prior. It had been on a growth tear prior to Covid-19, posting three years of consecutive record growth, topping out at 438,100 in 2019.

Pasco boardings remain well below normal in the first two months of the year. The were down 43% and 34% in January and February, relative to a year earlier, according to the port’s monthly airline activity report.

Penning, the consultant, believes the numbers will improve. Air travel is ticking up as more Americans are vaccinated and looking to reconnect with family and friends.

“These travelers are looking for good fares and nonstop flights – to reduce touch points – so Avelo’s  service is likely to meet with success,” he said.

Burbank will serve as Avelo’s hub, with flights to Bend/Redmond, Oregon; Bozeman, Montana; Eugene, Oregon; Grand Junction, Colorado; Medford, Oregon; Phoenix/Mesa, Arizona; Ogden, Utah; and Arcata/Eureka, Redding and Santa Rosa, all in California.

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