Pocatello airport using government grant for bigger planes

Brad Iverson-Long//November 7, 2012

Pocatello airport using government grant for bigger planes

Brad Iverson-Long//November 7, 2012

The Pocatello Regional Airport ranks sixth in the state in passengers in the state. Photo courtesy of Pocatello Regional Airport.

Fifty-seat jets have replaced the 30-seat turboprops that used to take off every day from Pocatello Regional Airport, thanks to a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The jets take off every morning for Salt Lake City and land every night. The airport used the $500,000 grant to give SkyWest Airlines, the only carrier that flies out of Pocatello, a minimum revenue guarantee. The guarantee reduces the airline’s risk in deploying the larger jets to one of Idaho’s less frequented airports.

Under the minimum revenue guarantee, if SkyWest loses money on the jet service from Pocatello to Salt Lake City, the airline will get grant money to cover the difference. Since flights started in June, the grant money hasn’t been touched, said airport manager David Allen, who said the airport may not pay out to the airline in the next three months.

That’s the goal.

“I’d much prefer not spending taxpayer money if we don’t have to,” Allen said.

Allen said the larger jets can be more comfortable for fliers, but also are good for the airport’s future, since airlines are shifting away from smaller, turboprop planes.

“The 30-seat aircraft are going away eventually,” Allen said, saying fuel prices and aging fleets are causing airlines to shift to larger planes, a trend that could amplify. “And major airlines are getting rid of the 50-seat airlines, because they’re not making money when they’re full. … A few years down the line, 70-seat aircrafts are going to be the minimum.”

Pocatello received its Small Community Air Service Development grant last year. The airport is also spending $80,000 on local marketing for its Salt Lake City service, encouraging travelers to fly from Pocatello rather than drive two and a half hours to the Utah airport. The Pocatello airport is highlighting its advantages over the Salt Lake airport, including shorter security lines and free parking, Allen said, adding that fares are regularly cheaper than when flying out of Idaho Falls.

Half of the $500,000 federal grant is being used for a revenue guarantee for the one roundtrip jet flight. Allen said the airline might add another jet flight.

Twin Falls received a similar grant this year and is going to start working out a similar arrangement with SkyWest in  coming months. A spokeswoman for SkyWest would not comment on the airline’s agreements with the airports. SkyWest also flies into Lewiston, Boise, Hailey and Idaho Falls under connections with United Airlines and Delta Air Lines.

The Pocatello airport had 21,500 passengers in 2011, up 3 percent from 2010, but far less than the passenger traffic in Idaho Falls or Twin Falls. Allen said he’s seen double-digit increases this year, thanks in part to the jet service.

Allen said the airline would like to add flights to other cities, especially Boise and Denver, but airlines across the country are cutting back on shorter routes. Matthew Hunter, president and CEO of the Greater Pocatello Chamber of Commerce, said the business community would like the Boise flight.

“People would like to be able to fly to Boise, but we’ve trained people to drive since there aren’t any flights,” Hunter said.

The Pocatello Regional Airport also recently wrapped up most of a $4.6 million rehabilitation to the secondary runway. Funding for that work, which started in June, came from the Federal Aviation Administration. Allen said the project included improved grading and grooved asphalt that will have better drainage, which will prevent slick or dangerous conditions, especially during cold weather.

“It really is a great runway,” Allen said. “The old one literally was from the World War II design.”