Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Air travel numbers reflect poor economy

Tough market prompts moves for community support

Express Staff Writer

Commercial air service to Sun Valley—measured both in terms of available seats and use of those seats—peaked in 2003 and by 2012 had dropped to about half of what it was.
    The decline is partly due to the replacement of year-round service to Los Angeles—which was funded by a one-year grant in 2003—with seasonal service, and to the loss of direct flights to Oakland in 2008. But the biggest drop has been due to the recession. Reduced enplanements at Freidman Memorial Airport are a symptom that the downturn is not over.
    “Every airport pretty much looks like that,” Fly Sun Valley Alliance Executive Director Carol Waller said.
    SkyWest Airlines, which flies year-round to Salt Lake City, has been reducing its schedule to Sun Valley since 2008.
    However, at a Friedman Memorial Airport Authority meeting in August, Airport Manager Rick Baird said the airport’s operations in July were the highest for that month in six years.
    “I think that these numbers are reflecting that this valley is beginning to climb out of a very difficult four to five years,” he said.
    That upward trend was stymied later in the summer by the Beaver Creek Fire, which burned more than 100,000 acres of land directly west of the valley.

“These days, any community has to make a concerted effort to attract and maintain air service.”
Carol Waller
Fly Sun Valley Alliance

   Waller said the percentage of the number of airline seats sold compared to seats available runs in the high 70s to low 80s nationwide. At the peak of air service to Sun Valley in the early 2000s, only about 55 percent of seats were occupied. A comparison of enplanements available to seats shows a gradual convergence; by 2012, about 75 percent of seats were sold. So, there’s data to show that supply has been adjusted downward to meet demand.
    But Waller said the opposite also occurs.
    “If we add seating capacity, we increase demand,” she said. “If you offer people more options and more frequency, they’re going to use it. We know that because that’s what our competitors have been doing.”
    Waller said surveys done with passengers using the new Los Angeles and Oakland routes showed that many of them were visiting Sun Valley for the first time.
    In August, Fly Sun Valley Alliance and the Sun Valley Co. signed a one-year contract with United Airlines to operate a summer and winter schedule between the Wood River Valley and San Francisco. Those flights are being subsidized by a minimum-revenue guarantee of an undisclosed amount provided by Sun Valley Co. Voters in Ketchum and Hailey will decide this fall whether to extend that guarantee with money raised through an increase in their local-option sales taxes. Sun Valley has already approved the 1 percent tax increase.
    “These days, any community has to make a concerted effort to attract and maintain air service,” Waller said. “It’s such a tough economic environment for the air carriers. They are very risk-adverse. The communities that want air service have to seek it and work with the airlines to mitigate that risk.”

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