PASCO -- Passenger boardings soared to record levels at the Tri-Cities Airport last year.
Boardings jumped to 256,449, an increase of about 6 percent from 2008, making last year the best ever for the Pasco airport.
Holiday travelers may have helped set a new monthly boarding record in December at Pasco with 25,560 passenger boardings.
Not many airports have seen numbers grow, said airport director Jim Morasch. The numbers would be slightly higher if not for some canceled flights due to inclement weather in December, he said.
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The rise in boardings began in June after five months of low traffic compared to 2008. It tapered off slightly in September and October before picking up again in November and peaking in December, he said.
Morasch attributes the increase to new direct flights to San Francisco and Phoenix-Mesa, Ariz. Those flights have proved to be very popular, Morasch said.
The record passenger boardings confirm "what we see elsewhere in the Tri-Cities," said Carl Adrian, president and CEO of the Tri-City Development Council. "This economy is very strong and vibrant."
Part of the growth is linked to the addition of direct flights to new travel destinations and part is related to the infusion of the federal stimulus money at Hanford, Adrian said.
Morasch agrees. A lot of new and potential Hanford employees may have flown back and forth from the Tri-Cities either during the interview process or after being offered jobs, he said.
With almost $2 billion from the federal government, Hanford is the single biggest recipient of stimulus funds.
Last year's gain of 14,542 passenger boardings is way up from a gain of 90 boardings in 2008 over 2007, when the total number was 241,817.
Generally, boardings have consistently risen annually since 2001, when they stood at 206,188. The only exception was 2003, when the annual passenger boardings fell to 203,729.
June and December usually generate the most traffic at the Tri-Cities Airport, Morasch said. He thinks traffic may rise when Delta brings back flights between Pasco and Minneapolis later this year.
The direct flight to Minneapolis was canceled in September when Delta Air Lines restructured its routes to better deal with the economic downturn.
The new nonstop Minneapolis-Pasco flight starts June 10, and will continue through the peak summer season, said Delta spokesman Kent Landers. Delta may consider extending the service "if there's strong performance," he said.
Adrian of TRIDEC said he hopes with new travel options at the Tri-Cities Airport, the boardings will continue to increase and attract people from nearby towns.
The increased boardings also can serve as a reminder to passengers that they should arrive at the airport at least 90 minutes prior to their flights, said Dwayne Baird, spokesman for the Transportation Security Administration.
Many people still think Pasco is a small airport and show up 30 minutes before departure and then feel frustrated by the long lines at the security checkpoint.
TSA staffing levels at the Tri-Cities Airport are adequate for its size and passenger traffic, said Baird, who's based in Salt Lake City.
-- Pratik Joshi: 509-582-1541; email@example.com; Business Beat blog at www.tricityherald.com