Vicki Hillhouse, May 28, 2015, Walla Walla Union Bulletin
May is shaping up to be the biggest month in air travel history for Walla Walla.
On Tuesday, passengers cemented the month as the best May on the books as commercial carrier Alaska Airlines surpassed 3,000 passengers, said the company’s acting Walla Walla Manager Jasen Downey.
If the numbers hold for the remaining days of May, he said, the Walla Walla Regional Airport will log its busiest month in the airport’s history — potentially by as much as 5 percent.
Downey told business representatives and citizens at a Port of Walla Walla Economic Development Advisory Committee meeting Tuesday the numbers were impressive enough on their own for what is typically a busy spring month. But they’re even besting high holiday traffic month December, which has consistently logged the most passengers of any other month over the last eight years.
“I keep on pinching myself,” added Jim Kuntz, executive director of the Port of Walla Walla, which owns the airport. “Our numbers are just absolutely terrific.”
There’s more, added World Wide Travel owner Paul Schneidmiller, a former Port commissioner. If the trend in passenger counts established during the first four months of the year holds, Walla Walla is set to surpass 40,000 passengers for the first time. The previous high was last year, when 36,272 outbound and 36,313 inbound passengers were logged.
That activity could help leverage a third daily flight, Schneidmiller said. “That’s the ultimate goal,” he said.
Schneidmiller said the load factor — the percentage of seats occupied on a flight — averaged 91.75 percent on the afternoon inbound flight in April.
“At some point when you’re at a 91 percent load factor that means several of those flights were actually sold out,” he explained. “That’s when it’s time for us to really have the conversation on the third flight.”
Airport and travel officials have said increasing wine tourism, a two-year concentrated marketing effort with $250,000 in federal funds, a local program that allows wine tourists to carry on their first case free, and a recovering economy have all played roles in helping boost local air travel. Schneidmiller said it also helps that Walla Walla’s flights are common-rated with those going out of Pasco on Alaska Airlines.
But even another factor is likely at play.
Burgeoning air travel at Sea-Tac, where flights from Walla Walla land, is partly fed by a battle of the airlines, according to recent reports.
The News Tribune of Tacoma estimates traffic could reach 42 million passengers this year. That’s up 8 million than 2013.
Spurring it may be an “undeclared battle” between Alaska and domestic travel rival Delta Air Lines.
Delta plans to grow its daily departures to 125 by the year’s end. Alaska and its sister airline, Horizon Air, have more than 50 percent of the airport’s traffic, the paper reported.
According to The Associated Press, which referenced the News Tribune’s piece, Delta has moved into Alaska’s traditional territory with flights to Alaska and to West Coast cities. Alaska has extended itself to more cities on the East Coast and in the Midwest. It added nonstop flights to New Orleans, Tampa, Baltimore, Detroit, Raleigh and Charleston.
In addition, Sea-Tac’s international traffic was up nearly 16 percent in April.
Meanwhile, the airport is amid a $1.9 billion improvements project to handle the increased traffic, including a complete overhaul and expansion of the North Satellite Terminal for Alaska.