Passenger traffic flying through Wenatchee Valley's Pangborn Airport is increasing. 

Planes into and out of the airport rose from 73% to 77% of seats being occupied by the middle of the year. 

Managing Partner Jack Penning with Volaire Aviation, the Chelan Douglas Regional Port Authority’s air travel consultant, says Pangborn was helped by the addition of a second daily flight earlier this year. 

"That was a critical piece of rebuilding your service," said Penning. "Without two flights a day, the service here just doesn't have the utility that most of our residents need."  

Penning gave a presentation at the Port’s Tuesday meeting, where he noted Pangborn had the lowest load factor of all Northwest airports to start the year but has jumped in ranking and now has a higher percentage of seats occupied than airports in Walla Walla and Yakima.  

Image from Chelan Douglas Regional Port Authority presentation by Volaire Aviation
Image from Chelan Douglas Regional Port Authority presentation by Volaire Aviation

Those two airports have the exact same service as Pangborn. 

The overall outlook for airports that strictly have regional airline service, such as Pangborn, is not healthy. 

Penning said a number of factors contributed to the cost of regional service. 

"Economics of regional service have changed dramatically because regional pilots are making more money, because fuel cost has increased, and because the more fuel-efficient turbo prop aircraft have mostly aged out and been retired." 

A pilot shortage will become much more acute in the coming years before it gets better. A ramp up in pilot training will take time to translate into more pilots being available. There’s currently a 13,500 gap in demand versus available pilots. 

In addition, there’s now a shortage of pilot captains to fly airliners. According to Penning, first officer pilots lack incentive to accept a promotion to captain status. Most first officers have seniority with the ability to choose their own schedules. The promotion to be a captain would not be a major pay increase but would send those pilots to the bottom of captain seniority with far less scheduling flexibility. 

The major airlines are trying to fill in the gap of captains by pulling captains from regional carriers, such as Horizon Air, which services Pangborn Airport. The move is causing a major shortage of captains at the regional level, leading to regional airliners being flown far fewer hours per day than are needed to sustain service. 

The number of regional jets across the country that are parked because of a lack of pilots has increased from 350 to 500 in the past four months, and will increase to half of all regional jets, 750 by 2026. 

 Another factor adding to the cost of flying regional jet service is pilot salary. The average starting salary for a regional jet pilot increased from $24,000 in 2014 to $108,000 in 2023. The current salary is also up sharply from $62,000 in 2022. 

In a single year, the cost of a seat out of Pangborn has risen by more than $5.00 because of the salary boost. As a result, the price of a ticket to the single destination of Seattle has gone up. 

Penning says the increase in the cost to fly the planes means airlines will start to rely on larger aircraft. There are very few 50 seat airliners left across the country, and none operated by Alaska Airlines, which owns Horizon Air. 

The current jet that flies out of Wenatchee has 76 seats, but it's likely there’ll be a move to fly more Boeing 737 airliners which have 179 seats into smaller airports. 

Penning says 737’s are only slightly more expensive to operate than a regional jet but offer increased seating capacity to offset the rising costs of flying.  

Pangborn Airport can handle 737 aircraft after the airport extended the runway to 7,000 feet in 2016. Penning is predicting Pangborn will be served by 737 aircraft by 2030, whereas other small airports that can’t accommodate the size of those planes will lose commercial service altogether. 

The distance of airline flights is also rapidly increasing as a means to ease cost increases. Any additional airlines serving Wenatchee in the future will likely fly to hub cities much farther away than Seattle, such as Denver. 

Further findings Penning presented at the Port meeting on Monday show that business travel has not rebounded since the pandemic and likely never will. 

In addition, he said the number of flights will increase when there are more passengers, such as on weekends. At some point there could be two flights to Seattle on a Tuesday while there would be four on weekends. 

One more challenge facing all air travel is a shortage of air traffic controllers. The U.S. currently has a shortage of 3,000 air traffic controllers and it takes seven years to train personnel to handle air traffic at major airports. 

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Gallery Credit: Heidi Kaye

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