Tri-Cities Airport waits for traffic to return, welcomes new airlines

Despite a global pandemic, 2021 was a pleasant surprise for the Tri-Cities Airport in Pasco. There’s reason for optimism as we have seen a significant improvement in air travel volumes.

Coming into the year, staff forecasted passenger traffic would reach 60% (262,873) of our 2019 passenger numbers (438,123). This estimate represents a significant growth over 2020’s dramatic decline in passenger numbers.

In 2020 passenger numbers fell to the lowest level since 1997 (188,959). We expect to finish 2021 at about 80% of the 2019 enplanements, or 342,464.

When 2021 is put into perspective, it certainly was better than 2020, but I miss those 2019 numbers.

Overall, we saw three new destinations enter the market. And while we lost some flights, we did not lose any destinations.

We seem to be faring better than most throughout the country and that is a testament to the strong economy and growth throughout our region. The consensus throughout the airline and airport industry is that most facilities will not see a full recovery until 2023 or 2024. 

This slow recovery is marked by several factors, most noticeably the Covid-19 pandemic, which at this time is impacting the return of the business traveler. The airlines also saw mass retirements at the height of Covid, which led to a pilot shortage exacerbated by the quicker than expected passenger recovery.

Although we are beginning to see a slight uptick in business travel, it is nowhere near what the airport was seeing in 2019. As confidence in air travel continues to grow and companies start to reinstate or expand their travel budgets, the business traveler will return, and operations will return to a somewhat normal to elevated level.

The leisure traveler has been the main driver in our 2021 passenger numbers.

This year the airport started three new routes on two new carriers.

Avelo Airlines launched weekly service to Burbank, California, and has provided the Tri-City region with year-round service to the LA basin.

Aha! began weekly service to the Reno-Tahoe area and will provide travelers with another leisure destination option out of the Tri-Cities Airport.

Finally, Allegiant added long awaited seasonal service to San Diego. San Diego is one of our top 10 destinations but has always seemed like a long shot due to the operational costs of going into the San Diego Airport.

With airlines reducing flights into many airports, airports such as San Diego have become open for airlines like Allegiant.

Although the Covid pandemic shut some doors for us – Chicago and Portland – it opened others such as Burbank, Reno and San Diego.  

Although the short-term prospect of Portland air service has closed, I do believe that as the airline industry starts to recover and Alaska Airlines begins to refocus on Portland as a hub, the Tri-Cities Airport will be a viable option for air service in 2023 or 2024.

With a decrease in passenger traffic comes a decrease in airport revenues.

In 2021 the airport received two federal grants worth $8,892,043 to assist with lost revenue due to the effects of Covid. The majority will go toward airport debt service. 

These grants provided funds for airport terminal tenants, such as the rental car agencies, parking lot attendants and concessionaires.

The Port of Pasco was able to provide $469,056 in relief to these tenants.

Recently the U.S. Congress passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, known as the infrastructure bill. This package will provide about
$16.7 million to the Tri-Cities Airport over the next five years. We also will be eligible to compete for about $200 million a year that’s available for terminal improvements over the next five years.

The Tri-Cities Airport in Pasco reported passenger boardings are still below prepandemic levels, but it did add two new airlines in 2021. (Courtesy Tri-Cities Airport)

We currently have $52 million worth of terminal projects to complete in the next 10 years. We are working hard to put ourselves in a position to take advantage of as much of this grant money as we can. Staff plans to focus efforts on improving the infrastructure on the general aviation side of the airfield, as well as building a new maintenance facility that will mainly be used to house our winter operations equipment.

Until the full details of this funding package are released, and we understand how the funds can be used, it is hard to say exactly how we will use them. We know these funds will be extremely helpful to the future development of the airport. 

The Tri-Cities Airport Business Park is finally starting to show some signs of life. Last year the Courtyard Marriott opened and this year the Landing began work on a 10,000-square-foot flex building and a 10,000-square-foot retail building. This development, coupled with projected future projects, has led the port to invest in the completion of the road and taxiway infrastructure in 2022. These infrastructure projects are integral to the successful buildout of the Business Park and completing them will put the Port in a position to take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves.

The Tri-Cities Airport is a direct reflection of our community.

As the Tri-Cities continue to grow, the airport will mirror that growth. I anticipate substantial future growth in our community. We’re working to position the airport to successfully handle future increases in the volume of the traveling public, while providing the best possible facilities and customer service.

The plan was to complete another terminal expansion in the next 7-10 years. With the new infrastructure funds available, this terminal work most likely will be completed prior to that window. This would set the airport up for a seamless transition into the next phase of our airport’s growth.

Buck Taft is director of the Tri-Cities Airport, a Port of Pasco facility.

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