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IF airport continues to grow

Idaho Falls Regional Airport passenger numbers continue to show steady growth, but officials think there’s work to be done in narrowing the fare-pricing gap between other airports within driving distance.

After a rough year in 2015 following the loss of an airline, about 148,000 passengers flew out of the airport last year, Director Craig Davis said. Numbers are trending 2 to 3 percent above that so far this year, and Davis thinks the airport can finish at 150,000 or 155,000 passengers by the end of December.

Davis hopes he can give ticket sales an even stronger jolt in coming years with direct flights to Seattle through Alaska Airlines, which would drive fares down and give passengers more route options.

“We’ve been working hard to address high fares by bringing in competition,” he said. “If we can bring them in that would really boost enplanements, and we can get closer to 200,000 passengers in a year.”

As is, Idaho Falls’ airport fares don’t always compare well to other airports within a few hours’ drive.

As of Tuesday, a passenger flying one-way to Seattle a month from now would pay $422 to fly from Idaho Falls, compared to $140 from Pocatello Regional Airport and $160 from Salt Lake City International Airport.

A passenger flying one-way to Denver a month from now would pay $349 to fly from Idaho Falls, compared to $141 from Pocatello and $69 from Salt Lake City.

Lower fares can come from a handful of factors.

Salt Lake City, which saw more than 11 million passengers last year according to Federal Aviation Administration data, has more competition between airlines.

Pocatello’s airport, meanwhile, is much smaller than Idaho Falls’ airport. Delta is the sole airline in Pocatello, and it offers daily flights to Salt Lake City. About 30,000 passengers used the Pocatello airport from January to the beginning of June according to a news release.

Flights from Idaho Falls are typically 98 to 105 percent booked, Davis said. Flights from Pocatello, meanwhile, are around 85 percent booked, Pocatello Regional Airport Manager David Allen said.

Moderate passenger numbers mean the airline sets fares low in Pocatello to fill planes, Idaho Falls Councilman John Radford said. Radford is the council’s liaison for Idaho Falls Regional Airport.

“They’d rather have a full plane, so they lower their prices. They use an algorithm to set the price,” he said. “In Idaho Falls we sell out planes like a month earlier, so tickets are more expensive.”

Why do travelers put up with expensive fares in Idaho Falls instead of driving about an hour to Pocatello? Many of them likely don’t pay out of pocket for their tickets, Radford said, because the airport attracts business travelers related to Idaho National Laboratory and other entities.

“When fares are first posted the airline is making a judgment based on how prior tickets sold. Because business travelers are willing to pay full fares, we end up paying higher prices as tourists out of Idaho Falls,” Radford said. “But the flip side is we have guaranteed seats and regular flights to the places we want to go.”

Many companies, including Barnes and Noble where Radford works, have policies to send their employees out of the nearest airports regardless of price difference.

But the amount of leisure travelers has increased to about 40 percent over the last few years with the emergence of low-cost airline Allegiant, Davis said.

Allegiant began offering flights from Idaho Falls more than a decade ago. One-way weekly flights to Las Vegas and Phoenix from the airline can be purchased for as little as $37 and $56, respectively.

Davis hopes to increase leisure travel and reduce overall fares with new Seattle flights from Alaska Airlines.

New routes also could prevent “leakage,” when local travelers use other airports. About 60 percent of potential Idaho Falls customers instead travel to Salt Lake City, Davis said.

Alaska Airlines has committed to offering flights from Idaho Falls, but it first wants a small “revenue guarantee” to ensure it doesn’t lose money when it can’t book enough seats.

Davis is waiting to apply for a U.S. Department of Transportation grant to secure those funds. Typically the application would have gone live by now, but there’s been a delay under the Trump administration.

“So we expect any day now to apply and we feel we have a really strong application package, including letters from Alaska (Airlines),” Davis said. “We’re keeping our fingers crossed. That’s our number one air service development — bringing in competition.”

Davis expects the grants to be administered in September or October. If Idaho Falls is chosen, Alaska Airlines could offer flights from Idaho Falls by early 2018.

Though none of the airlines that fly from Idaho Falls offer Seattle routes, the addition of Alaska Airlines likely would lower prices from other airlines, especially Delta, Davis said.

Seattle would represent another “hub” for passengers to start their trips from, creating an imperative for Delta to lower its fares to Salt Lake City and subsequent cities.

“We’ve seen that in other small, regional airports. Alaska (Airlines) comes in and other airlines immediately match or lower their fares,” Davis said. “The reason we’re so excited for Alaska is because they compete directly with Delta for many of their flights in the West Coast and overseas in the European markets.”