By Vicki Hillhouse, February 6, 2015, Walla Walla Union Bulletin
Another flight will take off Saturdays at the Walla Walla Regional Airport.
For the first time in more than six years, Seattle-based carrier Alaska Airlines will add service to the community, said Greg Sullivan, Walla Walla customer service manager for the airline.
In 2009 the company added seats by using a larger airplane.
A new 2:20 p.m. flight will start June 13, he said. It will be loaded into the system for bookings and become available for sale starting Sunday.
Along with that, the current 2:07 p.m. flights offered the other days of the week will also change to 2:20 p.m. to go with inbound and outbound connections with Alaska flights, Sullivan said.
The 5 percent increase in the number of seats available each month is a light step in bolstering service after a humongous year for air travel in a community that just a few years ago was on the brink of losing the commercial carrier.
“That was one small step they could take” Sullivan said of the airline.
“Hopefully, this will be a stepping stone to an eventual third flight.”
Airport Manager Jennifer Skoglund welcomed the news.
“The goal has always been to retain commercial air service, and we have surpassed that with our continued passenger growth,” she said via email.
“The new goal is to increase frequency in and out of Walla Walla.”
She echoed Sullivan’s comment that this may be a precursor to a third weekday flight.
Walla Walla had been on a three-flight schedule when the airline converted its fleet to Q400 planes in 2009.
The changeover doubled the capacity for local air travelers on the 76-seat planes. But it was also difficult to fill.
Although 2009 was a record-breaking year at the time, air service continued to have ups and downs here.
In addition to the flight reduction that had long taken place, by 2012 the carrier announced it was grounding an inbound and outbound flight Tuesdays and Wednesdays that summer.
Airline officials told the Port of Walla Walla Alaska was losing money operating in the community.
Local officials have come up with numerous developments to entice air travelers to fly from the Walla Walla Regional Airport.
The Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance coordinated a promotion that waives tasting fees at most wineries for air travelers and waives the former fee for carrying on a box of wine.
The community also landed a $250,000 federal Small Community Development Grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation.
With a $50,000 local match, a total of $300,000 has been spent over the last two years promoting Walla Walla air service from Seattle to the Bay Area of California.
Though the money is gone, the Port, airport and Tourism Walla Walla have budgeted $50,000 in funds to carry on marketing promotions in 2015.
The work has paid off. Last year the airport had the busiest month on record, surpassing the 2009 numbers when three flights were offered.
In 2014, 36,313 people flew into Walla Walla; 36,272 flew out.
Economic recovery is believed to have a major part in the turnaround.
Sullivan said he’s also seeing a regular rotation of business travelers, and loads of leisure travelers checking in their cases of wine. How the new Saturday flight will shake out numbers-wise remains to be seen.
The additional flight is an unusual time for leisure travelers on a weekend getaway. But it may be ideal for quick turnaround trips, Sullivan said.
“Hopefully this leads to bigger and better things,” he said.