Airport Manager Jennifer Skoglund stands near one of the "Illuminated Gateway Arbors" at the Walla Walla Regional Airport.
Count 2016 as another landmark year for Walla Walla air travel.
In a timeframe when the flight schedule expanded from two daily trips to three most days of the week, the Walla Walla Regional Airport made history once again with a roughly 15 percent jump in passenger traffic.
According to numbers from commercial carrier Alaska Airlines released late last week by the Port of Walla Walla, more than 6,000 more people flew in or out of Walla Walla in 2016 than the year before.
The numbers continue a three-year record-breaking streak that air travel officials count on to solidify the health of the Walla Walla Regional Airport and ongoing commercial air service.
But improvements can still be made, airport Manager Jennifer Skoglund said.
Continued communication with the airline on a successful schedule, expanded ridership and increases specifically on Tuesday and Wednesday flights are the focus on the horizon for 2017, Skoglund said.
Last month was easily the busiest December on record for passenger numbers. However, it was only the third-busiest month of 2016 when it came to the number of people flying out of the airport, and the fourth-busiest for those flying into Walla Walla. What historically has been the busiest month for air travel each year was affected by the cancellation of five flights. The cancellations were attributed to a combination of factors in an overwhelmingly frigid and snowy month: mechanical issues, the airline not wanting a plane to remain overnight in inclement weather, and crew rest issues with the busy holiday travel season combined with systemwide cancellations and delays.
Still, 4,284 people flew out of Walla Walla in December. That’s a 12.7 percent jump from December 2015. The inbound passenger tally for the month was 4,103, a 14.8 percent hike from the corresponding month a year before.
The increases are fairly reflective of the overall jump for the year.
In all of 2016, 47,422 people flew out of the airport. That’s 6,163 more people than 2015’s record high. Slightly fewer people — 47,123 — flew into the airport for the year. That figure represents 5,846 more people than the number that flew in during 2015.
Despite the greater number of individuals taking to the skies, the year-end load factor dropped in 2016.
The passenger load factor — the measure of occupancy of available seats — is what the airline scrutinizes as it looks at its profitability in the marketplace.
Outbound load factors ended the year at an average of 71.18 percent, while the inbound load factor was 71.9 percent. The percentages are down from 88.21 percent and 84.08 percent, respectively, in 2015.
The difference is the addition of the third flight, introduced in March. Throughout the 10 months the third flight operated the schedule had changed at different points. Initially the schedule offered just two flights five days of the week. In June, the schedule changed to bolster the three-flight schedule most days except Saturdays. During November for 16 of the 30 days the airline operated two roundtrip flights per day.
Nevertheless, the third flight brought about 16,000 more seats for a roughly 30 percent increase in capacity to fill, Skoglund said.
She said expanded marketing — such as the concerted efforts to market and educate locals about utilizing the service and marketing beyond Walla Walla to tourists — will be important in the new year to continue to build traffic and load factors.