Tri-Cities Airport: Pandemic has air travel in a holding pattern

Covid-19 has taken a bite out of air travel at the Port of Pasco-operated Tri-Cities Airport, which hasn’t rebounded as hoped, just as the end of summer tends to “dry up” leisure travel, said Airport Director Buck Taft.

“I don’t have the confidence to say anything for certain. It’s taking a dip as of right now, and the business traveler is the key,” he said.

In the early days of the pandemic, boardings fell by more than 90%. Boardings returned to 90% of pre-Covid levels, but Taft said industry predictions suggest it might not be until 2024 that air travel fully returns to 2019 numbers.

In the last year, the airport has added three new flights, connecting Pasco with two southern California destinations, Burbank and San Diego, and the Reno-Tahoe area.

Taft said Los Angeles International remains the No. 1 market the airport is hoping to land as a daily nonstop.

“Portland is still on the radar for next year as a route we want to capture,” Taft said. The airport wants to make a play for service to Phoenix, Dallas and Chicago as well.

“We feel those cities are our next step. What order they come in – my crystal ball isn’t that good,” he said.

Taft said the Tri-Cities is still a hot market for new routes, but it’s more isolated and just a little farther away than some other desirable spots, like Bend, Oregon.

“Oregon airports are closer to L.A. than we are. When we’re competing, they’re going to get the service first,” Taft said.

The airport currently offers daily, nonstop flights to Denver, Minneapolis, Salt Lake City, San Francisco and Seattle, and weekly or seasonal flights to Burbank, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Mesa-Phoenix and San Diego.

Flights to Reno-Tahoe International Airport begin Oct. 24.

The entire industry has suffered from pilot shortages, a problem that began prior to the pandemic, and most new pilots start in regional airports, like Pasco, before moving to longer-haul routes.

A plan to add a commercial building at the Tri-Cities Airport Business Center has fallen off initial predictions to start construction in late 2020.

The port signed a long-term lease for The Landing at West Argent Road and Varney Lane, near Columbia Basin College, which is expected to include a flex building, followed by retail space, said Randy Hayden, the port’s executive director.

“It’ll happen. There’s just been delays for many reasons,” he said.

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