Airport advocates say demand for service remains

Daniel Mintz
Mad River Union

McKINLEYVILLE – The loss of PenAir flight service to Portland has impacted the county’s main airport but demand remains and efforts to attract another airline are ongoing.

In its August newsletter, Fly Humboldt – the county’s airport service advocacy team – reports that the California Redwood Coast Humboldt County Airport had the most robust passenger support among PenAir’s five regional airport hubs serving Portland.

In the fourth quarter of 2016, Humboldt’s McKinleyville-based main airport saw 8,828 passengers flying to Portland, with 174 departures and planes filled to 74 percent capacity on average.

California Redwood Coast Humboldt County Airport JD | Union

Of the other four airports, Klamath Falls came closest to Humboldt’s level of support, with 2,794 passengers during the time period. Crescent City, Redding and North Bend/Coos Bay were the other flight origins.

“PenAir certainly didn’t say, ‘We’re pulling out of Humboldt because we weren’t supported there,’” said Gregg Foster, the executive director of the Redwood Region Economic Development Commission, which partners with the county for Fly Humboldt.

Last November, PenAir announced it would be adding a third daily Portland flight, which began in early January. But the extra flight was soon rescinded, which Foster attributed to a pilot shortage and maintenance-related issues.

By early August, PenAir’s debts peaked and the company withdrew its non-essential (unsubsidized) airline service from Humboldt and all other areas except Boston and Alaska.

“The company went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy to deal with its issues but we can say that the airline came here and in a short period of time, got a lot of support,” Foster said. “So we do have a strong market – there’s strong demand here.”

In 2016, Humboldt’s passenger volume grew to about 70,000 passengers, an increase of almost 30 percent from the previous year. There was an eight percent increase in the first five months of 2017 compared to the same time period in 2016.

The increased yearly volume is significantly less than the peaks of almost 120,000 passengers in 2007 and 2008. Those higher volumes reflect the presence of Horizon Airlines and its direct to Los Angeles flights, which ended in 2011.

Passenger volumes slumped through 2014 and have been on the upswing since. But that trend is expected to reverse with PenAir’s withdrawal of service.

“We had a lot more air traffic before 2011 and if we add service, we’ll see that again,” Foster said. “But it’s still a hard sell because airlines are very constrained, both with equipment and pilots – it’s hard for a small airport like ours to get their attention.”

But the airline recruitment effort includes regular communication with airline managers and Foster believes that Humboldt would have more service now if not for pilot shortages.

“Recruitment never stops and that’s not just true for us, it’s true for the entire industry,” he said.

One thing the county will still have in its favor is the ability to offer a minimum revenue guarantee or cash reserve that would fill any gap between an airline’s local costs and ticket income. PenAir did not request a revenue guarantee when it launched service here.

United Airlines remains the county’s mainstay passenger service provider, with three flights per day on 50- and 70-seat jets. Foster said United will add a fourth daily flight this week.

As airline recruitment continues, Fly Humboldt is developing what its newsletter describes as “a strategic plan to improve the aviation system and passenger service.”

The plan is being developed in collaboration with the Indiana-based Volaire Aviation Consulting firm and public comment is being solicited through the Fly Humboldt website and the county website’s Open Humboldt forum.

Foster said that anecdotal experience suggests that air service passengers are most concerned about reliability, improved connectivity and ticket pricing.


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