Sunday, August 26, 2018

Horizon Air ends more than three decades of flight service to Lewiston, Idaho

Lewiston’s up-and-down relationship with commercial air carriers hit a new low Saturday, when Alaska Air Group’s Horizon Air subsidiary ended service to the Lewiston-Nez Perce County Regional Airport after 35 years.

The move leaves Delta/SkyWest as the sole air carrier still serving the Lewiston market. It currently only flies to Salt Lake City.

About a dozen Horizon employees were on hand for the company’s final day of operations here, which included one arrival from Seattle and two departures to Boise and Seattle. Besides high-fiving passengers and thanking them for their support, they also took group photos in front of the planes.

“They’re a great group of people,” said Jerry Price Mars, who worked for Horizon for three years and came to see the last flight. “They’re like a big family. A couple of them have worked there almost 30 years.”

That’s almost as long as Horizon has been in the Lewiston market. The company began service here in 1983, making it one of the airport’s longest-serving air carriers.

In recent years, however, Horizon flights were typically only about 60 percent full, compared with 85 percent system-wide. That prompted the company to announce in March that it was pulling out of Lewiston.

Passengers Saturday were still trying to figure out how that will affect their travel schedules in the future. If they can’t make a connection out of Salt Lake City, they may have to drive to Pullman or Spokane —adding another layer of stress, complexity and cost to their travel plans.

“I know Pullman is only 30 to 40 minutes away, but it’s a lot more convenient (flying out of Lewiston),” said Makaylin Jardin, a Lewis-Clark State College transfer student who was flying home to Hawaii for a friend’s wedding.

On her return flight, she said, “I’m probably going to have to fly into Pullman and ask my boyfriend to pick me up. Before, he could have just dropped my car off at the airport.”

About half the passengers leaving on Horizon’s last flight to Seattle arrived in the area by cruise ship.

“I don’t know what people are going to do next week,” said Virginia Thresh of Grass Valley, Calif. “The only other option would be to rent a car or take the bus offered by the cruise line up to Spokane.”

State Sen. Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston, arrived on Horizon’s last flight from Seattle. He’s been a steady customer of the airline – particularly during the legislative session, when he buys a block of tickets to fly back-and-forth to Boise.

“I’d buy a half-dozen tickets for about $50 one-way,” he said. “A Delta flight’s probably going to cost about $300, so I’ll be driving.”

Horizon is hardly the first airline to pull out of the Lewiston market, but the loss of its Boise and Seattle flights represents a major change from 1994 – the airport’s 50th anniversary – when passengers had multiple destinations to choose from.

“Record levels of passenger activity were reached in 1993, as more than 84,000 customers passed through the doors of the terminal building,” noted former Airport Manager Robin Turner, in a lengthy history of the airport he wrote for its 50th anniversary celebration. “In 1994, the Lewiston-Nez Perce County Airport is the only small community airport in the northwestern United States having direct service to every hub (in the region), including Boise, Portland, Seattle and Spokane.”

However, Turner’s report also highlighted the constant up-and-down nature of commercial air service in Lewiston – from the 1930s and ‘40s, when it wasn’t clear the community even wanted its own airport, to the deregulation era in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, when a half-dozen small regional airlines and larger air carriers came and went in rapid succession.

“Ever hear of Air Pacific?” asked a Lewiston Tribune story in 1983. “How about Execuair? No? Well, try on Tri-State Airways.”

Execuair offered flights to Boise and Pullman in 1978. Gem State Airlines provided service to Lewiston for about 11 months in 1978 and ‘79. Big Sky Airlines offered flights to Missoula for a short time, while Mountain West flew to Boise during the winter of 1980-’81. Cascade Airways was one of the more stable companies, providing service to Lewiston for about 17 years, from 1969 to ‘86.

The fickle character of the airline industry itself is also apparent from one of Lewiston’s greatest success stories – Zimmerly Airlines, which brothers Bert and Fred Zimmerly started here.

Local historian Steve Branting noted that the company was just the second regional airline in the nation to be certified by the Civil Aeronautics Board to provide service to small communities. It began offering flights from Lewiston to Boise on a trial basis in 1944, as soon as the airport was open for operation. Passengers had to crawl through a barbed wire fence to get to the plane, where they handed the fare directly to the pilot. The cost was $17.75 one way.

Zimmerly Airlines later became Empire Air Lines, which merged with West Coast Airlines in 1952. Subsequent mergers resulted in the company being renamed Air West, then Hughes Air West, then Republic Airlines, which finally pulled out of the Lewiston market in 1982. Republic later became part of Northwest Airlines, which merged with Delta.

“The initial airline service in Lewiston worked because of a minimal regulatory environment, and because the aircraft and airline companies were small and appropriate to the market,” noted Turner, in an updated history he wrote before retiring in 2014. “They were able to continue service regardless of the underlying economic viability because the federal government subsidized them … In 1978, Congress deregulated the airline industry and the handwriting was on the wall. The subsidies would end and airlines would, for the most part, have to survive as private companies. They were in charge of their own economic destiny, free to move into or out of markets. With that, service to many smaller communities proved to be financially (unsustainable) with the large aircraft of the day.”

The best way for communities to avoid that fate, he said, is to take care of the air carriers they have.

Former Lewiston City Councilor Jesse Maldonado was also a passenger on Horizon’s last flight from Seattle. He said people on the plane were clearly disappointed when it was announced that was the company’s final arrival in Lewiston.

“Hopefully they’ll be back,” he said. “I think that’s what everyone is working towards.”

Story and photo gallery ➤

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

They need the plane elsewhere now that they are short one Q 400.