Empire Airlines will cut its passenger service to Boise on June 30, ending more than 12 years of convenient travel for North Idaho business people and legislators.
Competition from Southwest Airlines flying out of Spokane International Airport was the last straw for Empire’s four flights from Coeur d’Alene airport, said chairman and chief executive Mel Spelde. Government regulation and higher costs also had strained the operation.
“Southwest has just done a marvelous job with what they do,” Spelde said Friday. “We’re big supporters of the free market system, and we just couldn’t compete with Southwest with 19-seat planes.”
Empire’s surrender leaves Coeur d’Alene without any passenger air service other than chartered flights. About 250,000 people flew on Empire jets since the service began January 1983.
Passengers waiting to take the 1:10 flight to Boise Friday said the loss of service was unfortunate.
“I think it’s sad,” said Sharon Plamondon of Spokane, flying with her son. “I know it’ll be especially sad for my husband. He’s a musician and flies to Boise all the time on Empire.”
Jodi Brogan, who flies Empire occasionally, was more concerned about her mother’s flying schedule.
“I know my mother will be disappointed because she flies a lot to Boise,” she said. “It’s so convenient to come and park right here at the terminal. I think we’ll miss it.”
Rumors of the demise of Empire’s passenger service had lingered for more than a year.
“It didn’t come as a great surprise to a lot of people,” Spelde said.
Part-time pilot and first officer Bud Morgan said he felt especially sorry for the people who made Empire’s passenger service run.
“I knew everybody out here, and it’s sad to see what’s going to happen,” he said, inspecting the gray Fairchild Metro aircraft.
Spelde said 11 of Empire’s 50 employees will lose their jobs in Coeur d’Alene. Another seven will lose their jobs in Lewiston - where the planes stop en route to Boise - and in Boise.
Empire’s passenger service has always been dwarfed by the airline’s transport service. Empire, with about 150 employees company-wide, flies 45 planes in western United States and will continue to ship cargo from Spokane.
Spelde said the company’s headquarters will remain in Coeur d’Alene. “This is our home, and this is where our employees want to live.”
Increased government regulations of smaller commuter airlines played a part in the cutback, Spelde said.
More electronic equipment required in the planes made them heavier, and cut further into the profitability of the routes, he said.
The Empire flights were often the transportation of choice for North Idaho legislators shuttling between the state capital and home on weekends.
Most fliers will opt to drive to the Spokane airport in lieu of making the eight-hour drive to Boise on treacherous Highway 95, often referred to as the “old goat trail.”
Southwest Airlines added three non-stop flights from Spokane to Boise May 20. The airlines sells 21-day advance fares for $88 roundtrip, said Gary Rodgers, customer service supervisor.
For Dale Curry, the end of passenger service actually meant a promotion for him. Instead of helping prepare and service the aircraft, Curry, who’s an air-traffic controller with the Air National Guard in Spokane, will be dispatching planes in Coeur d’Alene.
“For me it turned out pretty well,” he said. “But it’s sort of sad to see this go.”
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MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: What about tickets? Empire passengers with tickets for flights after June 30 are asked to call Empire at 667-5400 for refunds or ticket transfers.