Monday, May 14, 2012

The future of air service in Idaho

Many cities Idaho Falls' size would envy the air service the city enjoys. But the trends in regional air travel -- bigger planes and longer flights -- are making it more challenging to maintain regular air service between Idaho Falls and Boise.
The Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce is planning a summit Tuesday on the future of air service in Idaho. The chamber is pushing for the re-establishment of routes that have included Boise in the past, and possibly creating new ones.

The keynote speaker will be aviation futurist Michael Boyd, president of the Evergreen, Colo.-based consulting firm Boyd Group International. Boyd will give "a blunt assessment of Boise's position and tell us what other cities are doing to keep and attract air service," the chamber said in a press release.

Other speakers will include new Boise Airport Director Rebecca Hupp and state Rep. Wendy Jaquet of the Sun Valley/Ketchum area, who advocates for commercial air service to and from Friedman Memorial Airport in Hailey.

I'd like to think someone from Idaho Falls going to this meeting. I know there are plenty of people who would like to see the return of regular air service between here and Boise. Until 2010, we had Horizon Air. In 2011, Seaport Air made a stab at the route, but didn't last six months.

The irony is that the trends driving regional air service -- bigger jets and longer routes -- are the same thing that have made the Idaho Falls-Boise route hard to sustain.

Here a digest of an article I wrote for the Idaho Business Review, which ran May 4:

In the early 2000s, the average size of a regional commercial airplane was 37 seats. Today, it's 55, and those seats have to be paid for, said Jack Penning of Portland, Ore., director of market analysis for Sixel Consulting. What is making the flight between Idaho Falls and San Francisco possible is the same thing that is making inland regional routes harder to sustain. "Smaller regional markets have been squeezed out because of a lack of appropriate aircraft," Penning said.

What would be ideal for an Idaho Falls-Boise route would be a plane like the 19-seat Beechcraft 1900 turboprops Silver Airways uses on its routes in Montana. Idaho Falls Regional Airport Manager Len Nelson said Silver is one of three small carriers he is trying to woo. But he and Penning, with whom he works closely, know the challenges.

"Airlines are reluctant to move craft away from established routes," Penning said. "You've got to convince them you've got something that will be viable for them."

In a 20-year projection from 2007, the Idaho Division of Aeronautics estimated that Idaho Falls' total number of emplanements would  rise from 168,503 to 297,400.

Despite the number of people that opt to drive to Salt Lake City or Boise (one reason Seaport cited for abandoning the route) Idaho Falls' isolation still works in its favor. A study by Sixell Consulting estimated there are 294,557 people within 60 minutes of Idaho Falls. Within two hours' drive time, that number expands to 665,359.

And then there is the  number of people traveling on government business, mainly connected to the Idaho National Laboratory.

"We have a lot of government people who fly out of here," Nelson said. "We've never really measured it, but on a 50-seat airplane I would estimate the people who work for the government or government contractors make up 25 or 30 percent."

Without the federal government and the Idaho National Laboratory, airport would be a lot smaller. Likewise, the business travel helps Idaho Falls get what it wants. "If they call up Delta Airlines and say, 'We need this,' Delta is going to pay attention," Nelson said.

A case in point: SkyWest's Delta Connection began sending 76-seat Canadair RJ 700s into Idaho Falls on May 2. The planes have first-class cabins, something Idaho Falls hasn't seen since Delta stopped its 737s in 1997.

SkyWest, which operates both the Delta Connection to Salt Lake City and United Express flights between Idaho Falls, Denver and San Francisco, has brought RJ 900s into service, freeing up the RJ 700s for other routes. Right now, the only RJ 700 that comes to Idaho Falls arrives late at night and leaves early in the morning, but if those flights are full more could be coming, Nelson said.

There are tremendous challenges for airports the size of Idaho Falls Regional. Nelson said the airport hired three new staffers in 2011 to monitor the runway surface. "They want our runways scraped down to the bare pavement all the time. Costs are getting higher and higher. Then you add sercurity. Every week we have a new rule. An airport like Los Angeles can take it in stride, but any increase in cost to us is a real big issue," he said.

Read more here: