Upgraded Tri-Cities Airport terminal is ready for prime time
Horizon Air is carrying 14 percent more passengers out of the Tri-Cities Airport this year than last, evidence the regional affiliate of Alaska Air Group is putting the pilot shortage that forced flight cancellations in 2017 behind it.
Gary Beck, Horizon’s CEO, visited the Tri-Cities and other Eastern Washington communities this month to update aviation officials on the airline and the steps it’s taken to attract pilots to its ranks.
During the Tri-City leg of his tour, Beck said the airline met its 2018 goal. It hired 340 pilots and is on track to meet its 2019 goal as well.
It is flying more routes now than before the pilot crisis, said Beck, a pilot who served as vice president for Alaska flight operations before being named to his new job in 2018.
The shortage forced Horizon to suspend at least two local flights, one to Seattle and the other to Portland. The former was restored but the latter was terminated last summer over low demand.
The news may be good, but Beck is unable to give Tri-Citians the answer they want to their top question: Is Horizon reviving its Pasco-Portland run?
Beck said he gets asked the Portland question in the Tri-Cities. Sadly, the answer is no, at least, for now.
Restore a Portland flight?
While there is no plan to restore service to Portland International, Beck said Horizon is “hell bent” on defending its position as the dominant regional carrier in the Pacific Northwest.
The airline updates its flight schedule five times a year and makes lesser adjustments more often. It is accepting delivery of four Embraer 175 aircraft this year, including two this month, pushing its overall fleet to 62 — 30 E 175s and 32 Q400s.
Buck Taft, the airport’s director, said 2017 was challenging, but Alaska/Horizon is an excellent partner, even without the Portland run.
“They do care about Pasco and they do everything they can to serve us,” he said.
Even as the port lobbies airlines for more and larger planes, Taft noted that local residents can reach 220 cities worldwide with just one stop.
Overcoming a pilot shortage
Beck blamed the pilot shortage on cuts to its training program and low pay. Word got out in the pilot community and Horizon lost its appeal as a workplace, he said.
Horizon implemented a series of changes to position Horizon and its partners as career-worthy destinations.
It overhauled its training program and created “Flight Path,” which allows pilots who cut their teeth on small, regional carriers such as Horizon an opportunity to move up to its bigger sister, Alaska, when they’re ready.
“Of course, we are happy to have them stay with us for their whole career if they want,” he said.
It also found success with a program that trains helicopter pilots to fly fixed-wing aircraft. The Northwest, he notes, has a heavy concentration of military-trained helicopter pilots.
Beck said Horizon continues to plan for moderate growth in 2019 as Alaska finalizes its $2.6 billion acquisition of Virgin America.
The 2017 deal dramatically expanded Alaska’s reach and fleet. The Virgin name officially disappeared in 2018.
Moderate goals for 2019
Last week, Alaska reported a 1.7 percent increase in overall passenger traffic in the first half of the year, driven by a 0.6 percent gain.
Its growth was driven chiefly by a 14 percent gain in its regional business, or roughly 5.4 million passengers in the first half of the year.
Horizon/Alaska served nearly 70,000 passengers at the Tri-Cities Airport over the same period.
Horizon accounts for the majority of the Alaska’s regional business, followed by sister carrier SkyWest.
The Tri-Cities Airport reports 206,327 passengers in the first half of the year, an increase of 14 percent.