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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Lewiston airport grapples with loss of Horizon AirSkyWest adding Lewiston-to-SLC flights in October

A Horizon Aire Q400, seen in the background, roars down the runway en route to Seattle, while a SkyWest RJ200 makes the turnaround at Lewiston before returning to Salt Lake City. (Barry Kough / Lewiston Tribune)
By Elaine Williams Lewiston Tribune

Lewiston just became a little more isolated.

Saturday’s departure of Horizon Air eliminates about 60 percent of Lewiston’s commercial passenger flights, forcing Lewiston-Clarkston Valley residents to drive to other airports to reach Seattle and Boise.

The community has been braced for the setback at the Lewiston-Nez Perce County Regional Airport since late March when Alaska Airlines, parent company of Horizon, made the announcement.

The loss has economic development experts worried.

“Access to air service is a necessity,” said Debra Smith, a member of the Lewiston-Nez Perce County Regional Airport Authority Board and regional economic development planner at the Clearwater Economic Development Association.

“Without the opportunity for great connectivity out of here, businesses might consider moving,” Smith said.

Here is a look at the history behind Horizon Air’s move and the impact it’s expected to have:

Question: Why did Horizon Air leave?

Answer: The average Lewiston flight had been well below Horizon’s system-wide average of 85 percent of the seats filled, Alaska Airlines spokeswoman Ann Johnson said in an email.

“The decision to exit service in Lewiston is based on capacity and demand trends in Lewiston and Pullman and how it has evolved over the past decade,” Johnson said.

Lewiston had one of the three lowest average passenger loads of 47 markets that Horizon was in when Alaska Airlines decided to pull the plug here, according to a report from Hubpoint Strategic Advisors, a consultant hired by the airport.

That explanation may not be complete. Horizon Air is continuing to serve the Pullman-Moscow Regional Airport and directing its Lewiston passengers to use its Seattle service.

The volume of passengers on Pullman’s Seattle-bound flights has skyrocketed in recent years from 39,676 in 2013 to 58,410 last year.

But Pullman’s flights were only slightly more full than Lewiston’s, according to a report presented by Lewiston’s airport Manager Stephanie Morgan the week Alaska Airlines announced Horizon Air was leaving Lewiston.

The average Lewiston-to-Seattle flight was at 62 percent capacity, while the average Lewiston-to-Boise flight was at 56 percent capacity, Morgan said.

Similarly, the average Pullman-to-Seattle flight was at 68 percent capacity, which rounds out to fewer than five passengers more than the average Lewiston-to-Seattle flight. There are no flights from Pullman to Boise.

Question: What commercial passenger service remains in north central Idaho and southeastern Washington?

Answer: SkyWest still flies between Lewiston and Salt Lake City. Presently there are two arrivals and departures every day of the week, with the exception of Saturday when there is one. Starting in October, a third arrival and departure will be added on Mondays, Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays. The Lewiston airport has waived landing fees on those additional flights and is conducting a marketing campaign as incentives for SkyWest, Morgan said.

Beginning today, Horizon Air has added a fourth arrival and departure on its Pullman-Seattle route. The only way to reach Boise by air from the region is to go through Seattle or leave from farther-flung airports, such as Spokane.

Question: How likely is it that Alaska Airlines will change its mind and allow Horizon Air to return to Lewiston, a community it has served since 1983?

Answer: Not very.

“We continuously evaluate every route we fly to match the needs of our guests,” Johnson said. “That said, we have not changed our decision to consolidate our operations at Pullman.”

The change is an example of how Alaska Airlines is “looking across the network and making some tough decisions to ensure we are running as efficient of an operation as possible while still being able to offer guests low fares,” Johnson said.

Horizon Air has dropped some flights that were usually close to full, such as ones between Bellingham, Wash., and Portland, Ore.

Karl Dye, president and CEO of the not-for-profit economic development group Valley Vision, said Alaska Airlines’ decision-makers told his predecessor their decision was final.

“It doesn’t make any sense to engage them in any more discussions,” Dye said. “If we could bring them back, I would love to, . but I can’t based on what they told us.”

Question: Might SkyWest take over the Boise and Seattle routes that Horizon Air no longer flies?

Answer: Maybe, but even the biggest supporters of the Lewiston airport believe it will take a lot for that to happen.

Gate space in Seattle is scarce, and airlines won’t locate in Lewiston without seeing the possibility of making money, Smith said.

One way to increase the odds of SkyWest adding new destinations, such as Seattle or Boise, is for passengers to fill existing SkyWest flights in and out of Lewiston, she said.

“There’s the potential for that, if we demonstrate the community is using the new flights we have,” Smith said.

SkyWest spokesman Layne Watson echoed Smith.

“We continue to evaluate demand as we determine long-term plans,” Watson said in an email. “Of course, the best way for the community to position itself for future possibilities is to utilize the current service.”

Question: There is a committee of people from the airport, Valley Vision and the Lewis Clark Valley Chamber of Commerce who are leading the community’s effort to win back air service. What are they doing?

Answer: The group hasn’t disclosed which routes or airlines it is prioritizing. It is starting with community outreach to be sure the Hubpoint Strategic Advisors’ report arrived at the right conclusions, Smith said.

The report was completed in November, before Horizon Air left, and was paid for by the airport.

“We need to do everything possible to bring in more flights, either with SkyWest or other companies … in line with that strategic plan,” Dye said.

One of the key recommendations in the report is recruiting Allegiant, an airline known for low fares, to fly to Las Vegas and Phoenix.

Those cities are high-growth destinations for Lewiston and markets Allegiant is focused on.

“Allegiant has the ability to offer substantially reduced base airfares,” according to the report. “In turn, the airline stimulates air travel demand particularly by leisure travelers.”

Allegiant typically flies two to three days a week in its markets and is already in Pasco and Missoula, according to the report. “There is potential that (Lewiston) could fill the gap between these two airports and enable Allegiant to access travelers it is not able to reach.”

United Airlines’ and Frontier Airlines’ service to Denver are other possibilities, according to the report.

“As a traditional network airline, United would offer high-frequency services to multiple U.S. and international destinations,” according to the report. “Frontier offers low-cost, low-frequency services to many business and leisure markets.”

Lewiston also should consider smaller carriers with planes that have capacity for nine passengers or less, such as Southern Airways Express, Great Lakes and Boutique Air, according to the report.

“These niche carriers are rapidly expanding in the U.S. market because they have right-size capacity for the typically small communities they serve and because they have more ready access to pilots due to rules differences,” according to the report.

The airport is working on a grant that will provide substantial funding it can use to retain air service and attract other carriers, Board Member Chris Clemens said.

“We’re also reviewing other proposals to increase revenue and make the airport self-sufficient,” Clemens said.

Question: How much money is the Lewiston airport losing because of Horizon’s withdrawal?

Answer: Airport officials anticipate they’ll see $55,000 less in landing fees and $18,000 less in rent revenue in the coming fiscal year with Horizon gone. Annual revenue from Hertz, Avis/Budget and Enterprise is expected to drop by about $60,000 because of fewer car rental days.

There will be less money for facilities too. Every commercial passenger ticket carries a fee of as much as $4.50 to help airports pay for capital projects, said Dave Mitchell, aviation services manager at T-O Engineers, a firm that works for the airport.

In 2017, Lewiston made about $345,000 from those fees, Mitchell said.

Airports can use those funds for infrastructure. That amount will drop to about $138,000 annually for Lewiston if the airport doesn’t get more commercial passenger service.

Question: The Lewiston airport gets $1 million annually from the Federal Aviation Administration for infrastructure and has the opportunity to compete for more. Is that money in jeopardy too?

Answer: No. Passenger boardings would have to drop below 10,000 per year before that money would be lost, Mitchell said, noting the competitive money from the FAA is distributed based on safety issues.

Question: Did airport board members cut expenses, since the airport will have less revenue in the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1?

Answer: No. The airport’s operations budget for 2019 is $936,822 for the coming fiscal year, compared with $830,000 for this year. The county and city are filling the gap, giving $143,663 each for that part of the budget compared with $47,000 this year. Their contributions to the capital budget will drop, though, from $87,500 each this year to $30,000 each in the new fiscal year.

The fixed costs of the airport aren’t dropping, even though fewer planes will be flying in and out of Lewiston, and the airport will need more money to attract new airlines, Smith said.

Question: Disputes have dominated the Lewiston-Nez Perce County Regional Airport Authority Board since January. What are they fighting about?

Answer: The tensions surfaced in January, just after a December meeting where board members split about whether or not to give airport manager Stephanie Morgan a raise in her $90,000-a-year salary.

At meetings in January, February and March, airport members debated issues such as who should be their legal counsel and when that counsel should be present. Board members Pat Nuxoll, Jim Finley and Emmett McCormick left. Eventually, the Nez Perce County Commission and Lewiston City Council grew so frustrated with the situation they amended a joint powers agreement governing the airport in April. The action essentially kicked off the remaining board members, Bill McCann Jr. and Verl Long, so the board could get a fresh start. The airport is owned by the city and county.

Question: How much did that dissension affect the airport’s ability to maintain commercial service?

Answer: It’s not entirely clear. Minutes of meetings from December, January, February and March indicate that air service retention wasn’t a major topic of discussion for the board, even though the Hubpoint Strategic Advisors report was completed in November.

It took the new board time to start tackling issues. All five board seats weren’t filled until July, and divisions resurfaced just weeks later.

Tony Maiorana resigned less than two days before a key meeting Aug. 15, where the 2019 fiscal year budget was passed. Maiorana said being a board member didn’t give him enough time to handle his other responsibilities, which include running his company, Jetco Machine and Fabrication in Asotin.

Joe Gish voted against the budget. The Horizon Air pilot and former Boeing executive resigned last week. One of his aggravations was not being able to get items onto the board agenda, such as talking about Morgan’s performance, Gish said.

That discussion was needed partly because the 2019 fiscal year budget includes a 3 percent raise for Morgan, Gish said.

The budget, Smith said, does contain compensation increases for Morgan and other airport employees. But it is only a spending plan, she said, and the board will have additional discussions before any raises are actually granted.

Besides Smith, the remaining board members are Clemens, chief operating officer of Green Water Energy, and Jim Bennett, a retired Lewiston city manager.

Question: How much influence does the public have on how the airport functions?

Answer: A lot. The airport authority board is subject to Idaho’s open meetings and public records laws, just like a city council or school board. Frequently, citizens are allowed to make comments at meetings, which are usually held in the third floor conference room of the airport terminal at 406 Burrell Ave. in Lewiston.

Community members can also share their thoughts with the city council and county commission. Those entities have considerable influence on the board and the airport’s annual budget. Each appoints two of the members on the five-member airport board. The fifth member is selected by the other board members. The board was created to look out specifically for the interests of the airport, which are sometimes different from those of the city or county.