Walla Walla Valley officials are hoping to boost air travel in and out of the Walla Walla Regional Airport in an effort to keep commercial flights.
Just three to four more passengers on each flight would make Alaska Airlines' flights more viable, said Jim Kuntz, Port of Walla Walla executive director.
Alaska Airlines officials have told the port that the Walla Walla market is operating at a loss.
The airline offers two inbound and two outbound flights between Walla Walla and Seattle. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, service has been cut to one flight in each direction for the summer.
In response, Port of Walla Walla commissioners recently approved lowering the fees Alaska Airlines pays the port in a 2-1 vote, with Commissioner Ron Dunning opposed.
Kuntz said the changes should save Alaska Airlines about $60,000 in the last six months of the year.
Alaska Airlines is grateful for the port commission's support, said Alaska Airlines spokeswoman Marianne Lindsey.
Horizon Air, purchased by Alaska Airlines in 1986, has provided commercial air service in Walla Walla since 1985 and wants to continue to do so, she said.
"We are really optimistic that we are going to be able to do this," Lindsey said.
But it's going to take more community support -- and not just the cost cuts by the port, she said.
Boardings are up by 2.3 percent for the first four months of this year, Kuntz said. And last year's 32,000 passenger boardings represented a 10 percent growth from the previous year.
Kuntz said the port's goal is to have at least 80 percent of the 76 seats on the plane filled on each flight. Right now, the number of seats filled is somewhere around 70 percent.
Cutting costs is what commissioners could do to show their commitment to helping the Walla Walla market become profitable for Alaska Airlines, so building terminal rent was halved to $7.50 per square foot, and the weight charge was halved to 40 cents per 1,000 pounds, Kuntz said.
The commission also waived the fee for aircraft rescue and firefighting, which was $7,100 per month. Not all airports charge that fee, Kuntz said.
The rate and fee changes would apply to any commercial air service company offering service at the regional airport. The commission will revisit the fees and charges later this year.
"We just feel very strongly that we have to retain air service," Kuntz said.
Commercial air service is important in generating revenue and in helping local businesses, Kuntz said. And the port has applied for a $250,000 federal small communities air service grant, which Kuntz said it hopes to use for marketing.
But they aren't waiting to hear back about the grant. The port, Tourism Walla Walla, the Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce and the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance are working together to create ways to convince more people to fly Walla Walla.
Tourism Walla Walla has promoted flying from Seattle as a way to get to Walla Walla, said Michelle Liberty, Tourism Walla Walla's executive director. Having a variety of transportation options helps when attracting tourists.
Walla Walla has continued to add to what it offers tourists, including wineries, shopping and restaurants, Liberty said. Not having commercial air service could change how the community is viewed, she said.
Alaska Airlines already offers a "Taste and Tote" program, where travelers from Walla Walla don't have to pay to check their first case of wine, Liberty said.
And Liberty said her group is working to attract tourists from a broader area, such as those who would fly into Seattle and then fly to Walla Walla.
That may mean making the flight times more convenient, she said. It isn't easy to change a schedule, but Liberty said they have been discussing the option with Alaska Airlines.
Liberty said she's optimistic that they will be able to draw more passengers.
-- Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; firstname.lastname@example.org