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Our View: Community can help restore dropped flights

The cost and difficulty of flying to and from Spokane may have been exaggerated over the years, but not by much. It doesn’t help that three airlines have cut service here.

Officials at Spokane International Airport will point out that while passenger counts are cyclical, the trend line for the past 40 years shows annual growth averaging about 5 percent. Indeed, more than 2 million boardings took place here in the first seven months of 2008, up almost 5 percent from the same period in 2007.

So the pullout by ExpressJet and the curtailments by United and Southwest airlines – including United’s daily direct route to Chicago – will be felt.

Spokane isn’t the only city to suffer the effects of high fuel prices, but that is little comfort to those who deal with the consequences up close: Casual travelers whose vacations and family visits to distant points are pricey and inconveniently scheduled. A growing number of residents who commute regularly to clients and work sites in other cities. Convention and tourism promoters whose prospects start by asking how much it costs to fly here. Economic development specialists who know that enticing people to start or expand businesses here are looking for ease of travel for themselves, their customers and their employees.

At North By Northwest Productions, the movie-making company that puts out about four feature films a year, Rich Cowan estimates that his business fills 400 to 600 airline seats a year ferrying stars and other personnel to Spokane. Losing nonstop flights from Los Angeles makes his job harder.

As recently as May, 77 flights left Spokane daily for 15 cities. By the time the recently announced cuts are carried out (in addition to a handful of seasonal flights that are cut every year at the end of summer), there will be 55 flights a day out of Spokane to only nine cities.

Some of the reductions amount to one fewer flight a day to Seattle, Portland, Salt Lake City, Denver, Phoenix and Minneapolis.

But several key cities to which Spokane has enjoyed direct routes are disappearing from the list entirely: Los Angeles, Chicago, San Diego, Reno, Nev., and Ontario and Sacramento, Calif. That doesn’t count San Francisco, which United dropped earlier.

Airlines have business decisions to make, and marginal routes can’t escape scrutiny in a time of burdensome fuel costs. But communities can fight back.

Credit key players in Spokane for a positive response. Spokane International has emphasized non-airline revenue sources, many of them from parking and from the food and merchandise vendors at the airport’s sparkling, revamped terminal.

It costs airlines $3.40 to board a passenger in Spokane, less than half the national average, according to airport spokesman Todd Woodard.

As airport and community leaders team up to maintain positive relationships with airline decision-makers, they will bolster the chances of keeping the routes we have and, once the next cycle arrives, restoring those that have been lost.


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