Tri-Cities Airport awaits return of traffic and welcomes new airlines
Despite a global pandemic, 2021 has been a pleasant surprise for Pasco’s Tri-Cities airport. There is reason to be optimistic as we have seen a significant improvement in air transport volumes.
At the start of the year, staff predicted passenger traffic to reach 60% (262,873) of our passenger count for 2019 (438,123). This estimate represents significant growth compared to the dramatic drop in passenger numbers in 2020.
In 2020, the number of passengers fell to its lowest level since 1997 (188,959). We expect to complete 2021 at around 80% of 2019 shipments, or 342,464.
When 2021 is put into perspective it was certainly better than 2020, but I miss those 2019 numbers.
Overall we have seen three new destinations entering the market. And although we have lost a few flights, we have not lost any destinations.
We seem to be doing better than most across the country and that speaks to the strength of the economy and growth across our region. The consensus across the airline and airport industry is that most facilities won’t experience a full recovery until 2023 or 2024.
This slow recovery is marked by several factors, including the Covid-19 pandemic, which is currently impacting the return of business travelers. Airlines have also seen massive retirements at the height of Covid, leading to a pilot shortage exacerbated by faster-than-expected passenger recovery.
Even though we are starting to see a slight increase in business travel, it is nowhere near what the airport recorded in 2019. As confidence in air travel continues to grow and companies begin to restore or increase their prices. travel budgets, the business traveler will return, and operations will return to somewhat normal to high levels.
The leisure traveler was the primary driver of our passenger numbers in 2021.
This year, the airport launched three new routes on two new carriers.
Avelo Airlines launched weekly service to Burbank, California, and provided the Tri-City area with year-round service to the LA Basin.
Ah! has started weekly service to the Reno-Tahoe area and will provide travelers with another leisure destination option outside of the Tri-Cities Airport.
Finally, Allegiant has added a long-awaited seasonal service to San Diego. San Diego is one of our top 10 destinations, but it always seemed like a long way to go due to the operational costs of getting into the San Diego airport.
With airlines cutting back on flights to many airports, airports such as San Diego have become open to airlines like Allegiant.
While the Covid pandemic has closed some doors to us – Chicago and Portland – it has opened others like Burbank, Reno and San Diego.
While the near-term outlook for Portland air service has closed, I think as the airline industry begins to recover and Alaska Airlines begins to refocus on Portland as a hub, Tri-Cities Airport will be a viable option for air service in 2023 or 2024.
A decrease in passenger traffic is accompanied by a decrease in airport revenues.
In 2021, the airport received two federal grants worth $ 8,892,043 to offset lost revenue due to the effects of Covid. The majority will go to service the airport debt.
These grants provided funds to terminal tenants, such as car rental companies, parking lot attendants and dealerships.
The Port of Pasco was able to provide $ 469,056 in relief to these tenants.
Recently, the US Congress passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, known as the Infrastructure Bill. This package will provide approximately
$ 16.7 million at Tri-Cities Airport over the next five years. We will also be eligible to compete for approximately $ 200 million per year which will be available for terminal upgrades over the next five years.
We currently have $ 52 million in terminal projects to complete over the next 10 years. We are working hard to put ourselves in a position to take advantage of this grant as much as possible. Staff plan to focus their efforts on improving the infrastructure on the general aviation side of the airfield, as well as building a new maintenance facility that will be used primarily to house our winter operations equipment. .
Until full details of this funding are released and we understand how the funds can be used, it’s hard to say exactly how we will use them. We know that these funds will be extremely useful for the future development of the airport.
The Tri-Cities airport business park is finally starting to show some signs of life. Last year the Courtyard Marriott opened and this year the Landing began work on a 10,000 square foot flexible building and a 10,000 square foot commercial building. This development, coupled with planned future projects, has led the port to invest in the completion of road infrastructure and traffic lanes in 2022. These infrastructure projects are an integral part of the successful construction of the business park and their completion will put the port in a position to take advantage of opportunities as they arise.
Tri-Cities Airport is a direct reflection of our community.
As the Tri-Cities continue to grow, the airport will reflect this growth. I foresee substantial future growth in our community. We strive to position the airport to successfully handle future increases in the number of travelers, while providing the best facilities and customer service possible.
The plan was to complete another expansion of the terminal over the next 7-10 years. With the new infrastructure funds available, this terminal work will most likely be completed before this window. This would prepare the airport for a smooth transition to the next phase of our airport’s growth.
Buck Taft is Director of Tri-Cities Airport, a Port of Pasco facility.