More people from the region are using the Tri-Cities Airport to get to where they want to go.
The Pasco airport's 1.4 percent growth in travelers last year shows the strength of the local economy and the airport's increasing reach, said Carl Adrian, Tri-City Development Council president.
Airport boardings grew to almost 331,300 in 2012, up about 4,500 passengers from the previous year, said Tri-Cities Airport Director Ron Foraker.
Adrian said he believed federal stimulus money was fueling some of the additional demand for Mid-Columbia commercial air service. But with an increase in airport boardings after the end of stimulus spending, that clearly isn't the case, he said.
It shows that the Tri-City economy is not as coupled with Hanford as many believe, Adrian said.
"Clearly, the economy is driving increased air service," he said.
But Foraker said federal spending at Hanford likely helped the airport see higher than average growth in recent years.
The airport's average annual growth rate has been about 3 percent, with the exception of 2010 and 2011, when growth was at a faster pace, Foraker said. Boardings were about 308,400 in 2010 and 326,800 in 2011.
Since 2008, total boardings have increased by 100,000.
Adrian and Kris Watkins, Tri-Cities Visitor & Convention Bureau president and CEO, agree that the regional use of the airport seems to be increasing.
More people are coming from outside the Tri-Cities, including residents in the Yakima, Walla Walla and Pendleton areas, Watkins said.
That, along with the new Portland and San Francisco flights, has helped attract more travelers, she said.
Increasing boardings can help bring more flights to more destinations, Watkins said.
More boardings help assure continued service, said Adrian, noting it helps when local officials ask airlines to add more services.
Airlines won't add new service until the demand is greater than their current capacity, Foraker said.
"We want to keep our airport healthy and strong," Watkins said, explaining that a good airport attracts more conventions and tourism and bringing new companies to town.
Adrian said businesses want to be in a community where they know their investments will grow.
Boardings were growing by about 3 percent in 2012 until December, when some airlines dropped a few flights, Foraker said. Last month, the 27,600 boardings were 3,000 fewer than December 2011.
The airport lost some Minneapolis, San Francisco and Denver flights in December, Foraker said.
Allegiant Air also offered fewer flights to Las Vegas and Phoenix-Mesa in December, he said.
United plans to add back its second San Francisco flight and return to three daily flights to Denver in March, he said.
In December, Allegiant Air saw 26 percent fewer boardings and United Airlines was down by 23 percent compared to the same month last year.
It's common for airlines to fly a winter schedule with fewer flights, Foraker said. Typically, those flights are then added back around spring.
Alaska Airlines, operated by Horizon Air, kept all its five flights to Seattle and one to Portland in December and ended the month up 2 percent, Foraker said.
The Port of Pasco's current efforts to preserve the option of expanding a runway and to remodeling the terminal are important for positioning the airport for continued growth, Adrian said.
The port recently bought 34 acres for $1.6 million so that a runway could be handle larger planes if needed.
And the port is working on an expansion of the terminal. The $32 million to $36 million project will double the current terminal and provide more room for everything from ticketing and security to waiting for planes.
-- Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; firstname.lastname@example.org