Tri-Cities Airport thrives even without Portland connection. What could be next?

Top five things happening at the Tri-Cities Airport

Tri-Cities Airport in Pasco is adding more flights.
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Tri-Cities Airport in Pasco is adding more flights.

A banner year for the Tri-Cities Airport in 2018 could bring good things to Mid-Columbia travelers in 2019.

More flights. Bigger planes. Maybe even more attention from airlines.

The airport announced Wednesday that it broke its old passenger record. It handled a 785,164 passengers or 5 percent more than the year before.

Buck Taft, who manages the airport for the Port of Pasco, is thrilled the airport overcame a rocky start to the year.

First quarter numbers lagged as Alaska Air Group canceled flights as it struggled with a high profile shortage of pilots.

By August, Alaska had halted its daily Portland flight, restarted it, then canceled it for good. Today, the Tri-Cities has no direct connection to Portland and none is currently anticipated.

Even without Portland, managers had reason for optimism in 2018.

The Tri-CIties Airport broke its old passenger record in 2018. While Seattle-based Alaska struggled, United Airlines and by Delta Airlines both stepped up their commitments to the Tri-Cities. Noelle Haro-Gomez Tri-City Herald

The airport unveiled its $42 million terminal expansion in early 2017, setting the stage for upgraded air travel.

The renovations dramatically improved the appearance of the airport and its capacity to receive and dispatch planes. There is plenty of room to add flights, Taft said.

While Seattle-based Alaska struggled, United Airlines and by Delta Airlines both stepped up their commitments to the Tri-Cities.

The former added a third daily flight to Denver.

The latter extended its second daily flight to Minneapolis-St. Paul from three months to six.

Taft hopes to convince Delta to make the second flight a permanent fixture in 2019. The Midwestern airport is a key hub for passengers traveling to and from the East Coast.

Taft expects 2019 will be another banner year, with at least 5 percent growth. The numbers will get a boost when United Airlines launches its daily flight to Los Angeles International on March 31.

Allegiant Airlines provides seasonal service to LAX, but caters to leisure travelers rather than business ones.

Flight passengers exit the Tri-Cities Airport in Pasco on Wednesday. The airport broke its old passenger record in 2018, handling 785,164 passengers. Noelle Haro-Gomez Tri-City Herald

Civic leaders have lobbied for the LAX connection since 2015, when the airport received a $750,000 federal Small Community Air Service Development grant to pay an airline to offer the service.

A local business alliance provided a $300,000 match, noting that its members are frequent fliers.

Airlines respond to rising customer demand with more service, including larger planes. And more seats can lead to lower fares, Taft said.

The airport estimates that about 40 percent of air travelers from the area start or finish their trips at the Pasco airport, a figure it is working to increase by lobbying airlines to expand service to the area.

The carriers offer daily flights to Seattle, San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Denver and Minneapolis.

The Tri-Cities Airport broke its old passenger record in 2018, handling 785,164 passengers. Noelle Haro-Gomez

Delta is the Tri-Cities’ biggest carrier, handling 43 percent of local traffic. It was followed by Alaska (32 percent), United (15 percent) and Allegiant (10 percent).

United saw boardings increase by 23 percent in 2018 while Delta reported a 6 percent gain.

Pasco was Washington’s third busiest airport in 2017, according to the most current Federal Aviation Administration figures for airports offering commercial service. It was 140th among among the nation’s 400-plus airports offering commercial service.

Not surprisingly, Seattle-Tacoma International led the region and was ninth in the nation. Atlanta is the busiest.

Elsewhere in the Northwest: Portland International (30), Boise Air Terminal/Gowen Field (69), Spokane International (71), Eugene, Ore. (121), Medford, Ore. (131), Bellingham (141), Redmond/Bend, Ore. (142), Yakima Air Terminal/McAllister Field (255) Pangborn Memorial/East Wenatchee (264), Pullman/Moscow (255) and Walla Walla (279).

Wendy Culverwell writes about local government and politics, focusing on how those decisions affect your life. She also covers key business and economic development changes that shape our community. Her restaurant column and health inspection reports are reader favorites. She’s been a news reporter in Washington and Oregon for 25 years.