After five consecutive years of record passenger traffic, the number of travelers through the Walla Walla Regional Airport has declined in 2019.
Starting with a bitter winter that grounded a number of flights in the first months of the year, fewer flights offered by carrier Alaska Airlines for a portion of the year has also contributed to a downturn in traffic, travel and airport officials say.
A changing tide may be coming though.
Huge drops in passenger numbers the first three months of the year had tapered by May. That led into the busiest June on record, according to data provided to the airport by Alaska Airlines.
“June is our first positive net increase for the year,” said airport Manager Jennifer Skoglund. “It was fantastic.”
The number of travelers flying out of the airport during the month was 4,714. That represents a 5.8 percent hike in outbound travelers from the same month a year ago when the number was 4,454.
Inbound travel numbers jumped by 7 percent year-over year, from 4,244 in 2018 to 4,541 last month.
For the first six months of the year, outbound traffic was down a total of 10.9 percent — or 2,836 passengers — from the same period in 2018. Inbound travel is down slightly more, 11.6 percent — or 3,033 people — year-over-year.
The decrease does not appear to pose a threat to the future of air travel. Instead, it seems to be a product of the flight schedule, Skoglund said.
The year’s start with three daily round trips to Seattle five days a week, quickly changed to a two round-trip schedule per day.
“There were more passengers last year, but there was also more flight frequency,” Skoglund said.
That schedule held until March 10, when Walla Walla’s schedule was bumped to three daily round-trip flights four days a week. The two-flight schedule continues to operate Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays, Skoglund said.
In simple terms, “more flights equals more opportunity to sell tickets,” she said.
Although Walla Walla had fewer flights during certain periods, those it did offer were relatively occupied.
The average year-to-date load factor — the measurement of utilization of seats available per flight — is 75.79 percent for outbound travel and 76.15 percent for inbound.
Those percentages are higher than the 2018 year-end load factor averages of 73.38 percent outbound and 73.77 percent inbound before the busiest traditional travel months even hit.
The goal is always to fill the planes as much as possible.
Skoglund said one deterrent may also have been that Walla Walla’s airfares for a period this year were not comparable to those offered on Seattle-bound flights out of Pasco.
Members of the local Air Travel Coalition met with the airline in April to discuss ideas around local air travel. The meeting offered a chance to reinforce to the airline the significance of price matching between Walla Walla and Pasco, Skoglund said.
World Wide Travel Service owner Paul Schneidmiller, a member of the coalition, said it also served as an opportunity advocate for a stable schedule, which is especially important to business travelers.
“It has been a mixed bag here, especially this first six months with flight schedules and a number of cancellations for a variety of reasons,” he said.
Since the meeting, the airline has also rolled out its “Saver Fare” program. The program offers the most affordable fare but with restrictions on booking, refunds, flight changes and seat selection.
With three flights most days of the week, comparable fares to those offered in Tri-Cities and travelers willing to book locally when they can, the numbers are expected to climb.
“That nice upward trend in June gives us some cause for optimism,” Schneidmiller said.