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Business roundup: Pangborn plan seeks more fliers

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How much interest in Pangborn Memorial Airport can you buy for $250,000? The Port of Chelan County is about to find out in what could be its first, focused media campaign.

The port and a Portland-based marketing consultant announced plans last month to use funds from a federal marketing grant to entice more people to fly.

More travelers could help boost the small airport’s revenues, which come mostly from landing fees, car rentals, parking and lease payments from airport hangars and lands. More revenue would reduce its operating deficit, which is expected to be about $692,000 this year on a total expense budget of $1.5 million.

The Port of Chelan covers about 82 percent of that. The Port of Douglas County, the rest.

We’ve been discussing ways we can reduce the subsidy and get in the position where the airport is self-sustaining,” said Craig Larsen, business development director for the Port of Chelan. “Getting the grant has helped us crystallize our thinking.”

Alaska Airlines is the only airline with regularly scheduled flights at Pangborn. Its 76-seat Q400 aircraft flies only to and from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

On average, its plane is only about 66 percent full — about 7 points emptier than the average for airlines serving airports of similar size, according to Jack Penning of Sixel Consulting Group, the Portland-based consultant hired by the port.

We have access to the world here. We have to make sure people understand that,” Penning said last month during a presentation at the Confluence Technology Center.

Penning says the port has to work to improve flight occupancy before tackling the ultimate goal of luring a second airline to Pangborn that flies to a city besides Seattle.

The port paid Sixel $7,500 last year to write an application for a federal Small Community Air Service Development Grant.

The application won $200,000 in federal funds that the port and other local agencies must match with $50,000 of their own money for a total marketing budget of $250,000.

About half the funds will be used to tout the benefits of travel to local fliers, including:

The total, average airfare bill out of Pangborn, including connecting flights to final destinations, is $179, Penning says. This is among the lowest of its peer airports in Idaho, Washington and Oregon.

Only about four flights are canceled each year for problems that include local weather conditions, Seattle weather conditions or aircraft maintenance. This is far lower than before the airport installed electronic landing equipment in 2006.

Pangborn is easy to reach, has cheap parking and is a good jumping-off point for area destinations.

Still, that may be a tough sell to the many area residents who choose to drive to Sea-Tac and skip airfare out of Pangborn. One-way fares on Alaska to Sea-Tac for the remainder of February, for example, range from $55 to $144.

Some of the grant funding could be used to entice Alaska to offer some lower-promotional fares, Penning said.

More would be used for advertisements in the local media, on news websites and via Internet search engines to ensure that when someone does a web search for airfares into Wenatchee, messages appear for Alaska Airlines and Pangborn.

Once Alaska’s planes are consistently fuller, and the airport’s longer runway is complete — sometime in 2015 — Penning says the port can then go after a second airline.

Small, Portland-based SeaPort Airlines ended a short-lived service to Portland in 2012 for flagging revenues.

The $30 million, mostly federally funded runway project will lengthen Pangborn’s airstrip to 7,000 feet, so larger planes can land there.

High fuel prices are forcing airlines to replace their smaller aircraft with larger, more fuel-efficient ones that often need more room to land, he said.

The airport will not attract a second carrier without the longer runway, Penning said.

Boardings at Pangborn have showed steady, sustained growth since 2007, the first full year the airport’s electronic landing system began.

A record daily average of more than 139 passengers was recorded last year amid an improving economy and Alaska’s lower regional fares, Penning said.

Airports that have already received Small Community Air Service Development Grant have added and sustained six new routes to cities that include San Francisco, Los Angeles and Denver, he said.

This program has been proven over the last decade to start new service that sticks around,” Penning said.

The grant gives the port until January 2016 to spend the money. Larsen said that no spending timeline yet exists.