Port of Walla Walla officials more certain about air service as boardings increase

Port of Walla Walla officials said they feel more secure about keeping commercial air service in the future.

As one of the smallest markets that Alaska Airlines continues to serve, port officials have been actively working to keep the daily two outbound and two inbound flights between Seattle and the Walla Walla Regional Airport.

Those efforts include a $300,000 marketing campaign to encourage airport use that has just entered its second and final year. The port also lowered Alaska Airlines' airport fees in 2012.

In 2013, the airport had the second-highest level of boardings in the past decade -- 33,050 -- which represents an increase of 3.8 percent from the previous year, according to port documents.

It's the second year in a row the airport has seen boardings rise, Kuntz said. And it's only 1 percent less than the airport's best year in the last decade, which was 2009.

"We are really bucking the trends," said Jim Kuntz, the port's executive director. "We had a terrific 2013."

The Walla Walla airport has about a tenth of the boardings seen at the Tri-Cities Airport in Pasco.

Kuntz credits a good portion of the success to Walla Walla area residents who have made the effort to fly out of the local airport when possible, even if it isn't always as convenient.

"Our citizens realize that we are fortunate to have Alaska Airlines in our market," he said.

One of the port's marketing focuses has been encouraging Californians to fly to Walla Walla and wine country, Kuntz said. They've reached out through social and electronic media.

An average of about 70 percent of the 76 seats on each flight are full, Kuntz said. That percentage has grown over the last four years.

The port still has half the $300,000 for its marketing efforts this year. The port received a $250,000 federal marketing grant thanks to efforts by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., Kuntz said. The port provided $50,000 in matching money.

Airport traffic is a combination of tourists coming in for long weekends and local residents, Kuntz said.

Members of the Walla Walla Air Travel Coalition expressed concern last year when Alaska Airlines announced plans to move the last flights of the day leaving Seattle for Walla Walla from 7:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. The coalition includes the port, airport, Walla Walla business, tourism and travel industry representatives and frequent flyers.

Alaska Airlines announced a compromise after hearing the community concerns, and now plans to change one of the flights to an 8:15 p.m. departure starting in March.

The new schedule remains convenient for about 80 percent of passengers who use the flights, since most of the traffic comes from Seattle and the West Coast, Kuntz said.

However, it remains difficult for East Coast flyers to get home with the current schedule, he said. But gaps are bound to happen with a two flight schedule, and getting a third flight is an uphill battle, considering the size of the Walla Walla market and the area's modest population growth.

Kuntz said the port will continue to carefully monitor commercial airline traffic.