A popular evening flight for Tri-City business commuters returning from Seattle is being canceled by Horizon because the flight was not profitable, airline officials said.
The roundtrip flight, which leaves Seattle at 6:30 p.m., arrives here at 7:19 p.m. and lands back in Seattle at 8:45 p.m., is being eliminated beginning March 13 because it was running less than half full, said Marianne Lindsey, airline spokeswoman.
However, a regular business traveler who often takes that 6:30 p.m. flight disputes the airline's claims that the flight isn't being used.
"I use it two or three times a month," said John Heaton of Richland. "This is a huge impact. That flight is crammed full. It's full every day and many of them are daily commuters" who may not fly every day but make the roundtrip commute to Seattle for the day on a regular basis.
Heaton works for Pay Plus Benefits, a Tri-City company that provides outsourcing of human resource services to many Seattle companies.
"We do a lot of business with Seattle companies. That's the reason I'm over there," he said. "All that Seattle money flows to the Tri-Cities. Alaska Airlines is going to hurt the Tri-Cities" by eliminating the service for business commuters.
He said he can conduct a full day of business and leave downtown Seattle at 5 p.m. and make it to the airport in time to catch the 6:30 p.m. flight. With the change, he will now have to cut his day short to catch an earlier flight, or spend hours at SeaTac airport waiting for the last flight back to Pasco, which is at 10:25 p.m. and lands at 11:15 p.m.
Ron Foraker, acting director at the Tri-Cities Airport, said they hate to lose any service to the airport and knows it will be an inconvenience for Tri-Citians.
"They pulled that away for a while last year and when we learned that was going to be pulled away again, it was really sad to hear," Foraker said. "It's a really popular flight to get those folks from SeaTac."
Lindsey said there were several factors that went into the decision to reduce the roundtrip flights from Seattle to Pasco from six to five.
Pasco-Seattle was a large connecting market for Northwest, but since Delta and Northwest merged, traffic that once connected to Northwest flights in Seattle, now can connect on Delta flights to Salt Lake City and Minneapolis, she said.
When United began a nonstop flight from Pasco to San Francisco, that also diverted traffic that used to fly to Seattle to get to San Francisco.
The overall market load factor averages 61 percent, Lindsey said, explaining that the late afternoon/evening flight from Seattle averages about 60 percent capacity, while the return flight from Pasco was less than 50 percent full.
"The roundtrip that is being dropped is the poorest performer in the current flight schedule," said Dan Russo, vice president of marketing and communications for Horizon Air. "Please keep in mind that these flights are operated with 76-seat Q400s. While frequency (the number of flights) is being reduced by one, historically the total capacity (number of seats) in the market that we offer is still higher than when we used to operate the 37-seat, Q200 aircraft in the market."
In addition to eliminating the 6:30 p.m. flight, the airline also is changing the time of the flight before it, which currently leaves Seattle at 4:10 p.m. and lands in Pasco at 4:59 p.m.
That flight now will leave Seattle at 5:05 p.m. and arrive in Pasco at 5:55 p.m.
The last flight to Seattle will leave Pasco at 6:25 p.m. instead of 7:50 p.m.
"We constantly monitor load factors in all our markets and make periodic adjustments to the number of flights based on demand," Russo said. "If we shouldsee a significant demand change in the Tri-Cities, we will certainly consideradditional frequencies."
The 6:30 p.m. flight temporarily was canceled in the fall because the airline was short an aircraft after selling some planes and had to pull the flight to use the plane elsewhere, Lindsey said.
Heaton, an Alaska MVP Gold member, said it was an "extremely painful" two months when the flight was pulled, but he knew it was temporary. This time, however, he discovered the service change "quite by accident" while trying to make some advance bookings.
He said he even drove to Alaska Air's headquarters to confirm it was being canceled, then started his own campaign to get the airline to change its mind.
A couple of weeks ago, before a return flight from Seattle, he handed out fliers he had made to passengers on the soon-to-be canceled flight. He said people were "shocked and angry" and he was "politely asked" by Horizon to stop handing out the fliers.
"Everybody that we talk to on these flights are shocked that they're going to discontinue it because they're always full," Heaton said. "It will really screw up everyone's schedule."
Heaton said frequent business travelers are doing positive business for the Tri-Cities in Seattle and also helped Alaska/Horizon have "their most profitable year ever."
"I would like to rally the Tri-Cities around the business and the community to say, 'This won't cut it,' " he said. "We really depend on that flight."
-- Paula Horton: 582-1556; firstname.lastname@example.org