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Walla Walla's air travel in 2019 remained high, but flight schedule changes could be challenging

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Passenger traffic made giant strides in September and October after weather and cancellations led to a rough 2019 start for air travel at Walla Walla Regional Airport.

WALLA WALLA, Wash. — A report on 2019 air service at the Walla Walla Regional Airport shows deplanements (those disembarking from planes) were up, enplanements (people boarding planes) were down, and the 2020 flight schedule may face some highs and lows of its own.

That was the gist from airport Manager Jennifer Skoglund during a presentation Tuesday at the Port of Walla Walla’s Economic Development informational meeting.

Passenger traffic made giant strides in September and October after weather and cancellations led to a rough 2019 start for air travel.

Total outbound passenger numbers ended 0.5% behind 2018’s record year. The highest December on record for passengers flying out of the airport served 4,791 travelers, compared to December 2018’s 4,473 passengers.

The total number of outbound passengers for the year was 49,414, compared with 2018’s 49,663 outbound passengers.

Inbound numbers fared better. December delivered 4,069 passengers to Walla Walla, compared with the previous year’s 3,843 inbound travelers. Last month’s numbers were 34 passengers shy of the busiest December for inbound traffic, which was in 2016.

The year-end total for passengers touching down here was 48,691, a 0.6% increase from 2018.

Skoglund told attendees of the meeting Tuesday that growth for the year came through load factor numbers. That benchmark measures the percentage of available seats that are filled by passengers. It is the number the airline uses to measure profitability for the airline in its markets.

In 2019, year-end load factors from Walla Walla to Seattle averaged 77.26%, up from 73.38% in 2018. The total average load factor for inbound flights was 76.34% compared with 73.77% the previous year.

The data helps make a case for Walla Walla when it comes to lobbying for more flights with commercial carrier Alaska Airlines, which saw a 76% spike in profit between 2018 and 2019, according to The Seattle Times.

Skoglund said Walla Walla’s load factor “bump” in 2019 may be partly attributed to a longer stretch through the year with more flights. In 2019, Alaska operated 10 months of the year on a three-flight schedule four days a week, rather than a two-round-trip schedule that came during much of the last quarter of 2018.

For now, the current schedule is two round-trip flights between Walla Walla and Seattle. That timetable will be in place through March 20. After that, Walla Walla is poised to return to three flights four days a week.

Skoglund said Tuesday the community is expected to have another flight reduction at some point in May. She said potential expansion of service to Portland — a request of numerous business travelers in the area — would likely have to come through a different carrier.

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at 509-526-8321.

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