Thursday, October 31, 2013

Idaho Falls still pursuing round-trip air service to Boise

The terminal at Idaho Falls Regional Airport.
Last week at the League of Women Voters' forum for City Council candidates (I'm running for Seat 2, as if you didn't already know) I was asked about Idaho Falls' air service and what it might take to get more flights and carriers. Since the candidates' answers were limited to one minute, it was kind of hard to go into much detail.

My short answer was that getting consistent air service into a community like Idaho Falls is a never-ending challenge. There's more than passenger numbers to consider. There are fuel costs, the size of the planes a carrier has in service and the money the carrier has invested in its fleet. The profit margins are very thin. The most pressing need for Idaho Falls is regular, affordable round-trip air service to Boise, but nobody has planes the right size to make such a route profitable.

For those of you who are more interested, here is a more detailed story.

A lot of cities the size of Idaho Falls would envy its three carriers providing jet service to major hubs and a technology base that provides a sizable number of business travelers.

But the very thing that is driving expansion of service to markets like Salt Lake City, Denver, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Los Angeles has made it tough to keep regular, affordable air service going between Idaho Falls and Boise.

"That's still our number one priority -- regular service between Idaho Falls and Boise," said Craig Davis, manager of Idaho Falls Regional Airport. "The challenge is finding the company that has the right-sized aircraft."

Planes are getting bigger and the routes are getting longer. 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.

Horizon Air, which had an Idaho Fall-Boise route for years, pulled out in 2010. Seaport Air, a regional carrier, opened a route in July 2011 only to announce less than six months later they were leaving.

With a direct highway connection between the two cities, Seaport said there was a "tipping point" on price where potential passengers would opt to drive instead of fly. What is making the flight to Phoenix possible is the same thing that is making inland regional routes harder to maintain, Penning said. "Smaller regional markets have been squeezed out because of a lack of appropriate aircraft."

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. But Penning is frank about the challenges. "Airlines are reluctant to move craft away from established routes," he said. "You've got to convince them you've got something that will be viable." Moreover, there are few long-term guarantees. Silver Airways, based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., announced recently that it is dropping its service in Montana in December.

Idaho Falls loses a lot of potential passengers to Salt Lake City, estimating leakage of 35 percent. The closer a community is to a major hub, the smaller its airport is likely to be.

But the airport still has a few things working 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. Also there is the number of people traveling on government business, mainly for  the Idaho National Laboratory. Without the lab, the airport would be a lot smaller. As it stands, 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," said former IFRA director Len Nelson, who retired in 2012.