Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Airport passenger ‘leakage’ is sky-high

Friedman loses roughly 368 passengers daily to other airports

Express Staff Writer

Passengers check in at the Horizon Air desk at Friedman Memorial Airport.

Sixty-two percent of people in the Sun Valley region choose to fly in and out through Boise, according to a report from aviation consultants Mead and Hunt.

Mead and Hunt analyst Trina Froehilch presented that number to the Friedman Memorial Airport Authority during a board meeting Thursday, Feb. 9.

Froehilch said only 28 percent of locals in the region use Friedman for travel to and from Sun Valley. As a result, Friedman is losing roughly 368 passengers daily, each way, to other airports such as Boise, Salt Lake City, Twin Falls and Pocatello.

"That's quite a few people who are actually diverting," she said.

However, County Commissioner and airport authority board member Larry Schoen questioned the numbers and methodology. Due to the nature of the study, which collected data from travel sites such as Expedia or Orbitz, the report only includes residents of 11 nearby zip codes, not visitors.

"If somebody flies from [Washington,] D.C., to Boise because they are coming to visit this valley, how do you track that?" Schoen asked Froehilich.

Froehilch admitted that the visitor is harder to reach. The airport authority issues surveys to passengers at Friedman, but it's more difficult to question passengers at other airports who also may be heading to Sun Valley.

"One of our assumptions is that the people visiting the community have the same travel habits as people who live in the community," she said, but added that those assumptions are hard to test.

Carol Waller, executive director of Fly Sun Valley Alliance, said the organization is in talks with staff at the Boise Airport to include questions about passengers' final destinations in the airport's surveys.

Froehilch also suggested conducting air service surveys on Bald Mountain or in other ski areas to discover which airports visiting skiers are using and if those numbers correspond to the report's figures.

If Froehilch's numbers are accurate, there is potential for increasing passenger flow to Sun Valley's airport, airport authority members and staff said. The trick is finding why passengers are diverting and correcting the problem.

County Commissioner and authority board member Tom Bowman said he was concerned that reliability was a main culprit in passengers' decisions. According to a report by T-O Engineers, about 30 percent of all flights into or out of Friedman are diverted to another airport.

However, Froehilch said reliability is not the only issue at hand.

"It's not as big of a factor as you would think," she said. "A lot of it has to do with airfare. Not all of it, but a lot of it."

The report states that on average, flights at Friedman are $31 more than flights at the Boise Airport and $16 more than at Salt Lake City.

"I'm sure you all are saying, 'That doesn't jive with what we know,'" Froehilch said.

She added that the average includes nonstop flights from Los Angeles and Seattle, where the disparity is far less than flights to New York City or other markets where a flight to or from Sun Valley can come at a $200 premium.

"That's a pretty big draw for people [to go to another airport]," she said.

The authority members will consider the report and discern how to reduce the loss of passengers, possibly by targeting markets with a low fare difference.

Sustain Blaine, an economic development group in the county, has stated that retaining passengers is key to keeping the airport in the region, which has a direct economic impact to the valley of $143 million annually. That figure includes jobs at the airport, rental car operations and other airport services, including user fees and hangar leases.

Airport Manager Rick Baird said the data in the report is a valuable tool for the authority to consider improvements that would retain more passengers.

"This data puts you in a position where you can help yourself," Baird told authority members. "This is valuable information, [and] I think there are some things we can do."

Katherine Wutz:

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