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The new normal for air travel

When you’re sitting in an airport for five hours waiting for a connecting flight, it’s easy to think Boise’s commercial air service needs to be improved, and quickly. With few direct flights out of Boise to points east, long hauls to the East Coast become a harrowing odyssey.

But as it turns out, things really aren’t that bad. While Boise has definitely lost many direct flights over the last several years, the reality is that most other similarly sized airports have, too.

That’s hardly a tonic for anyone who wants to fly to New England without making a connection (or two, or three). But it’s a step in the right direction for economic development officials who want to position the city as a place where new businesses should move.

It certainly seems as though the flight path has headed sharply down in Idaho lately. Since 2007, Boise’s nonstop offerings have dropped from 21 to 16. Seaport Airlines introduced service between Boise and Idaho Falls in 2011 but dropped it last December after few people used it.

In August, the low-cost Allegiant Air announced new flights between Boise and Las Vegas, and between Boise and Honolulu. But Honolulu’s not exactly known as a popular business destination for Idahoans (those would be Seattle, Portland or Salt Lake City). And any elation over this move was cancelled out by Southwest’s announcement in October that it was cutting all of its direct flights between Boise and Portland.

Persuading airlines to provide direct flights is so difficult that a handful of Idaho cities applied for federal grants last spring to help provide incentives to the air companies. Boise lost out, but Twin Falls and Pocatello both won the grants, which come from the competitive Small Community Air Service Development Program.

Pocatello is using its $500,000 grant to provide a minimum revenue guarantee to SkyWest Airlines, the only carrier that flies out of its airport. And it’s spending $80,000 to promote its own airport to business travelers over the airport in Salt Lake City 165 miles away. Twin Falls, which also won a $500,000 grant last summer, is doing something similar.

The cities of Ketchum, Hailey and Sun Valley are trying to pass a local option tax that would go to provide minimum revenue guarantees to an airline. The tax failed in November, but Carol Waller, the executive director of the Fly Sun Valley Alliance, says it will soon appear on the ballot again.

Nobody has proposed airline incentives in the Treasure Valley. Boise can’t levy an option tax (that’s available only to resort cities), and none of the leaders who are committed to improving air travel see any kind of incentive as a long-term solution. Incentives that favor one airline are going to drive away would-be competitors, not attract more flights. That has happened in other cities.

But Boise Metro Chamber CEO Bill Connors has said air service is his group’s top priority. He says he knows of companies that were considering a move to Idaho, but backed out because of its skimpy air service.

This month, Idaho Business Review gathered experts in the industry to find out what was happening with direct flights and what local officials can do about it. Michael Lum, an air industry analyst with Sixel Consulting who worked as a strategic planning manager for a decade at American Airlines, compared airline seats per resident in metropolitan statistical areas of Boise’s size, from 550,000 to 750,000 population. Boise’s MSA is about 628,000.

The numbers show that Boise’s actually in pretty good shape. In fact, in a list of 19 cities, it comes in second only to Fort Myers, Fla., for its seats per resident at 2.6. Fort Myers, a winter and spring vacation spot, is far ahead of the pack at 6.9 seats per resident. A slew of other similar-sized cities – including Syracuse, N.Y.; Des Moines, Iowa; and Charleston, S.C. – have between 2 and 2.5 seats per resident.

At the bottom of list are Stockton, Calif., and Toledo and Youngstown, Ohio, with just 0.1 seat per resident.

Instead of looking for ways to pay off or subsidize airlines, it’s time to accept the reduction in flights as the new normal. While it’s no fun taking two or more connecting flights to get to your destination, it’s not as though Boiseans are suffering more than their counterparts in other mid-size cities. In fact, they’re apparently better off.

Anne Wallace Allen is managing editor of the Idaho Business Review.

About Anne Wallace Allen

Anne Wallace Allen is the editor of the Idaho Business Review.