Commercial air travel is gaining ground in a year that started with a sharp decline in passenger traffic.
September’s record month combined with the busiest June in history for travelers has helped the Walla Walla Regional Airport rebound after a rough start to the year.
Airport Manager Jennifer Skoglund said September’s average load factor — the ratio of available seats to passengers — of 76.11% was up almost 4% from the same period a year ago.
With a three-flight schedule four days a week since March, the schedule has been consistent. The number of cancellations has also tapered as just one inbound flight was canceled last month.
Last September’s schedule offered just two daily flights. Nevertheless, last month’s passenger traffic total bested previous record years when a three-flight schedule had been in place.
The number of outbound passengers was 4,379 — a 24.2% jump from September 2018. During the same period, 4,219 people flew into Walla Walla. That number represents a 33.7% jump from the corresponding period last year.
A rough start to the year courtesy of weather-related cancellations, fewer flights and other issues led to a sharp downturn in traffic for the first five months of the year.
June brought the first net positive increase in commercial air travel for 2019. A strong August also stabilized air travel numbers here.
Skoglund said at the lowest point, enplanements were down 26.4% from last year and are now just 4.8% under the 2018 total. Deplanements reached their lowest level at 28.1% lower than last year, but are now just 4.1% behind the 2018 numbers.
“Having the consistency of a three-flight schedule (four days a week) since March of this year has been positive,” she said.
Skoglund said the schedule will remain in place through the end of the year, which positions the airport well for some of what are historically the busiest air-travel months.
A schedule change starting early next year will reduce the schedule back to two flights and may create some hardship at first.
For about six weeks starting Jan. 6, Alaska Airlines will operate a two-flight schedule per day. These are generally slower months with weather issues, Skoglund said.
The schedule may include challenges for corporate day travelers with business on the west side of the state.
The final flight of the day landing in Walla Walla on that schedule touches down here at 12:13 a.m. That means day travelers who take the early flight will have a 5 a.m. outbound flight here and, to have a full day’s meetings, will have to return on the 11:15 p.m. flight from Seattle.
“For the day-trippers, especially the corporate travelers who need to go to Seattle for a day and then come back, that’s going to be concerning,” said World Wide Travel owner Paul Schneidmiller.
“If we only have two flights, they need to be timed pretty well if we’re going to retain those corporate travelers,” he said.
That particular schedule was set through Feb. 12, as of this morning.
Schneidmiller said it likely would have gone longer, except that Air Travel Coalition head Kip Kelly lobbied the airline to reconsider the schedule.
Kelly, a frequent traveler and recreational pilot, said he noticed the schedule when he booked a flight for January. The challenge is that much more of the air travel that time of year comes from locals who might otherwise be tempted to fly out of Pasco for a different schedule. The adverse effects reportedly prompted Alaska to reconsider the schedule. As of this morning, the final flight leaving Seattle for Walla Walla on Feb. 13 departs at 9:20 p.m. and touches down here at 10:25 p.m.