Lewiston-Nez Perce County Regional Airport will get a third flight to Salt Lake City starting Oct. 1 from SkyWest Airlines, a regional carrier for Delta Air Lines, the first announcement of a new flight there since Horizon Air in March announced it would withdraw from Lewiston-Nez Perce in August.
SkyWest and Horizon are the only commercial carriers at the Lewiston airport, typically with five departures a day to Salt Lake City, Seattle and Boise.
The new 4:41 p.m. SkyWest departure to Salt Lake City will be on Monday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday, said Doug Banez, managing director of Hubpoint Strategic Advisors, the airport’s air service development consultant in Davidson, North Carolina.
A corresponding additional return flight from Salt Lake City will arrive at Lewiston at 4:11 p.m.
The late afternoon flight fills a gap in the day, as Lewiston currently has seven-day SkyWest departures to Salt Lake at 5:15 a.m. and 12:13 p.m. Arrivals from Salt Lake are at 11:48 a.m. and 10:28 p.m.
The additional flight comes as Horizon Air, an Alaska Airlines regional carrier that has served Lewiston since 1983, will pull out of Lewiston on Aug. 25 and with it eliminate non-stop service between Lewiston and Boise and Seattle. Lewiston-Nez Perce has had flights serving Boise since at least 1991, Banez said.
After Aug. 25, Salt Lake City will be the only nonstop destination from the Lewiston airport and SkyWest will be the only commercial carrier, airport director Stephanie Morgan said.
This could result in a potential 60 percent reduction in passengers at Lewiston, coming just after Lewiston-Nez Perce boarded all-time high 72,848 passengers in 2017, Morgan said.
Seattle flights will still be available at Pullman-Moscow Regional Airport 36 miles north of Lewiston, and Spokane International Airport has Boise flights 108 miles to the north of Lewiston and 82 miles north of Moscow.
“I think it is really bad news,” said John Rusche, a Lewiston doctor and former Idaho House minority leader. “To be without a flight to either Boise or Seattle is going to hurt economic development. It also will be difficult for statewide companies, the colleges, and state government to do their business. At best it is a 11-hour round trip driving to Boise and back, similar to Seattle. The choice to go through SLC is not good. You spend almost as much time.”
Without a nearby regional carrier like Seattle-based Horizon, Banez is not optimistic about restoring the Lewiston-Boise route.
“It is one of the more challenging routes to secure,” Banez said. “(Boise) is not a hub. A lot of small airports can get service to hubs. But (a Boise flight) is something we would like to see if a right carrier comes along.”
Valley Vision Economic Development, covering Lewiston, Clarkston and their counties, is less concerned about adding cities and more concerned with filling the planes to Salt Lake City.
”Right now, Valley Vision is continuing to solidify the relationship with SkyWest,” said Karl Dye, Valley Vision’s new executive director. “That is our first priority. Right now, it starts with small stages and building support for the new SkyWest flight.”
Dye is collaborating with airport staff, board members, airport consultant Banez and city and county leaders on charting a future for the airport, which is jointly owned by the city of Lewiston and Nez Perce County.
“We’re still in the early stages of discussions,” Banez said. “We think there are definitely strengths and opportunities.”
Ultra low-cost carriers
Banez compares Horizon leaving with SkyWest adding a flight in Lewiston. He believes airlines, especially ultra low-cost carriers with smaller aircraft ,could find Lewiston appealing.
He noted Horizon flies 76-seat aircraft while SkyWest serves Lewiston with 50-seat aircraft. The Boise flights on Horizon on average filled 65 percent of seats, lower than the typical load factor across the country of roughly 80 percent, the same as SkyWest’s Lewiston-Salt Lake City service.
“Is it the market or is it the airline?” Banez pondered. “One take is the timing of (SkyWest’s third flight) right on the heels of Alaska (announcing the withdrawal of Horizon)? There is opportunity.”
Banez analyzed the Lewiston airport in a November 2017 Air Service Development Strategic Plan that was obtained and published by the Lewiston Tribune in a public records request.
He determined that Lewiston should pursue Allegiant Air and explore adding Las Vegas and Phoenix as nonstop destinations – both primary locations for Summerlin, Nevada,-based Allegiant, which has very low air fares but charges extra for seats, carry-on bags and checked luggage.
Las Vegas and Phoenix are the No. 5 and No. 7 destinations for travelers flying from Lewiston among the top destinations of Seattle, Boise, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City and San Francisco, according to U.S. Department of Transportation statistics cited in Banez’s plan.
Allegiant has not yet been pursued by the airport, airport director Morgan said.
“We have not had any discussions with Allegiant until we develop a sound approach, have board direction, and community support,” Morgan said. “We are always trying to improve air service for our community and region.”
The plan also recommends considering Denver-based ultra low-cost carrier Frontier Airlines and United Airlines service to San Francisco via SkyWest, which operates region flights for United in San Francisco.
“That’s the type of airline we would now focus on,” Banez said about the ultra low-cost carriers. His Lewiston plan also recommends looking at Part 135 commercial carriers that use turboprop planes seating nine or fewer passenger.
Banez cautioned the strategic plan is an internal document not intended for public release. He said airports and airlines prefer to negotiate out of public view. He added that airport/airline dynamics change frequently but the basic findings are still valid.
Idaho Business Review reporter Sharon Fisher contributed to this article.