Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Local support has Fairbanks International Airport flying high

FAIRBANKS — Community support is the backbone of a successful airport, and Fairbanks International Airport “is doing very well.” 

“The Future of Air Travel in Fairbanks” was the focus of Jack Penning’s presentation during the Greater Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce luncheon Tuesday at the Carlson Center. Penning is executive director of air service strategy and development at Sixel Consulting, which works with FAI. 

Penning’s presentation painted a positive picture of FAI’s current operation and its future, even though the air-travel industry has its challenges. After the meeting, Airport Manager Jeff Roach confirmed the airport’s success. 

“FAI is doing very well. It’s definitely a bright spot in the Alaska economy,” Roach said. “Our numbers continue to climb, and last year our passengers (exceeded) a million. The number of passengers rose 6 percent. We’re looking to do that again this year.” 

“It comes down to community support to make an airport work,” Penning said. “Local support is huge.” 

Penning praised Explore Fairbanks, the quasi-government tourism group, for its work in promoting Fairbanks as a tourism destination. Explore Fairbanks’ advertising efforts in Asian markets such as China and Japan have been particularly beneficial in securing direct-charter

flights. FAI also has the advantage of being remote. Instead of driving to Fairbanks, flying is typically the best option. 

The Fairbanks community of roughly 100,000 had more than 1 million passengers come through FAI. 

Adding new destinations

“Mitigating risks is the best way to land a new route, and we need to prove (airline companies) can get a positive margin,” Penning said. 

To illustrate, Penning said it could cost an airline $48,000 for a direct flight from Fairbanks to Phoenix. He said an airline wants to be convinced it will break even and make money on the flight. Ultimately, it boils down to filling seats. 

Roach said Alaska Air’s acquisition of Virgin America could be beneficial to Fairbanks, although the deal has not been officially completed. 

“The potential to fly direct to San Francisco is of interest to us. It’s a Virgin hub. Los Angeles and Phoenix, Virgin hubs too,” Roach said. 

FAI used to have a direct flight through Frontier but changes in the company’s business model removed the destination.

“We’d love to get back into Denver,” he said. 

Roach said he would like to work toward changing the newly added charter flights from destinations such as Taipei, Taiwan, and Osaka, Japan, into regularly scheduled flights. 

“We are 9 1/2 hours’ flight time from 90 percent of the industrialized world,” he said. “We’re at a tremendous strategic advantage. Even though we’re competing for fewer resources, we’re in a good position for air service development.”

Roach said FAI will continue to work with Sixel and Explore Fairbanks to lock in new destinations. 

Pilot shortage

Penning said the greatest challenge facing the air-travel industry is the looming pilot shortage, which could be problematic for smaller airports such as FAI should airlines have to redesign their business plans. 

Pilots are required to retire at 65, and many pilots will be retiring in the near future. 

Richard Wien, a local aviator, said the new requirement of 1,500 flight training hours is daunting to future pilots. Wien said the increase in flight training hours required to become an air pilot has increased the cost of training, discouraging would-be pilots.

“It’s a continual downward spiral. A disturbing trend,” Wien said. 

Penning agreed. 

“It’s a rule designed to fix something that didn’t need fixed,” Penning said. “We do need congressional change.” 


Penning said communities can receive grants from the Federal Aviation Administration to offset the costs of unfilled seats and to entice an airline to open up a new destination it wouldn’t typically consider.  He discussed the Laughlin Bullhead Airport in Bullhead City, Arizona, which secured a direct flight to Phoenix through a grant.

Penning said this airport received a $750,000 grant, and the community matched with a $600,000 contribution. 


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