Third Round-trip Flight Announced Between Seattle and Walla Walla

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Third Round-trip Flight Announced Between Seattle and Walla Walla

Walla Walla Airport by Anna Dawson

Walla Walla Airport by Anna Dawson

Walla Walla Airport by Anna Dawson

Walla Walla Airport by Anna Dawson

Christy Carley

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Alaska Airlines recently announced a third round-trip flight between Seattle and Walla Walla that will be added in March 2016. Added to the new schedule is one flight departing from Seattle at 9:50 a.m. and another departing from Walla Walla 6:05 p.m.

Efforts to convince Alaska to add the new flight began in 2014 after the airport witnessed an increase in the number of passengers on flights in and out of Walla Walla over a number of years. Prior to this the number of flights between Seattle and Walla Walla had decreased from five to two, in part due to an increase in the size of the aircrafts used by Alaska. It was around this time when Alaska began to leave a number of small communities in the Pacific Northwest.

According to Walla Walla Airport Manager Jennifer Skoglund, the airline generally hopes for a ten percent return rate at each airport and an 80 percent load factor (meaning that each flight is 80 percent full). In 2010, flights in and out of Walla Walla had a load factor of about 60 percent.

“We were right there on that chopping block,” said Skoglund. “And [Alaska] gave us a chance. We have a very good working relationship with them … They see the positives of the three colleges and the businesses we have. They also started seeing the uptick in the tourism that Walla Walla has enjoyed.”

Since 2010, the Walla Walla Airport has witnessed a steady increase in the average load factor of both inbound and outbound flights, passing 80 percent by the end of 2015. Such an increase can likely be attributed to the growth of both tourism and business in Walla Walla, as well as greater advertising efforts.

In 2011, Washington Wine Country, a nonprofit promoting the wine industries of Walla Walla, Yakima and the Tri-Cities, partnered with Alaska on a program called Taste and Tote which allows passengers flying from Walla Walla to check one box of wine on their flight for free.

Ron Peck, Executive Director of Visit Walla Walla, explained that while the wine industry has played a crucial role in increasing tourism, visitors also appreciate the small town ambiance, shopping and good food.

“Is wine important? Yes,” said Peck. “Are there other elements of our destination that our important to the visitor? Absolutely.”

In regards to advertising, The Port of Walla Walla received a Small Community Air Service Grant of 250,000 dollars from the United States Department of Transportation in 2013 to use for marketing. with an additional 50,000 dollars share contributed by the Port. The money was used for marketing over the course of two years in combination with Alaska’s efforts, focusing mainly on online advertising in California markets. The advertising continued into 2015 with funds of 25,000 dollars contributed by the Port of Walla Walla and 15,000 dollars each by both the Walla Walla Regional Airport and Visit Walla Walla.

“We know the marketing has helped tremendously,” said Skoglund. “We have to give a lot of credit to the tourism in Walla Walla … Walla Walla is a destination and people want to come here.”

Peck represents Visit Walla Walla on the Air Service Coalition, a group that also includes representatives from local businesses, the Port and the Chamber of Commerce. In an effort to preserve commercial air service in Walla Walla the Coalition makes annual trips to Seattle to meet with Alaska and discuss potential flight changes and marketing campaigns, as well as other aspects of the partnership.  

“We want to be cooperative and collaborative,” said Peck.

After about a year of strongly advocating a third flight, the Coalition has finally been successful.

“We’ve worked hard with the airport and community to market our service and adding the third flight is a continuation of our successful partnership,” said Ann Zaninovich, Spokesperson for Alaska Airlines in an email to The Pioneer. “The third flight will give both visitors to Walla Walla easier access and residents better connections to the 86 destinations served from our Seattle hub. The third flight should dramatically cut down travel time for many passengers connecting beyond Seattle.”

The added flight will provide another option to accommodate members of the Whitman community needing to travel for conferences or other commitments.

“I think the biggest thing, no matter what, [is that] having more times will give you more flexibility in when you can return,”  said Resident Director of the Interest House Community John Lee, who has traveled several times in the past few months for medical school interviews.

Lee also emphasized that having more flight times into Walla Walla could increase options for connecting flights, likely allowing people more flexibility to fly within their budget.

Dean of Admissions Tony Cabasco said that while the added flight won’t dramatically affect travel for admissions staff, it could provide increased opportunities for prospective students to visit campus.

“Anything that can help make Walla Walla more accessible to students and parents only helps us,” he said.

Now that the flight has been announced, Skoglund said there are new goals for the partnership.

“We really feel like there needs to be a schedule change that allows for a later arrival that night into Walla Walla,” she said. “That will help us with those who are connecting from the East Coast. Currently they get into Seattle from the East Coast … and they miss [the connection] flight.”

Skoglund hopes to work with local businesses to write letters to Alaska encouraging the potential schedule change. But no matter whether or not the change is made, Peck emphasized the community’s enthusiasm regarding the new flight.

“We are thoroughly excited and pleased that Alaska has made this decision,” he said.