Two of the world’s largest airlines are maintaining nonstop flights from Lewiston at a time when dozens of communities are losing service because of a pilot shortage.
About 1,900 passengers boarded Delta’s flights heading to Salt Lake City in February along with about another 800 who took United’s flights to Denver, said Lewiston-Nez Perce County Regional Airport Director Michael Isaacs.
That’s more than double the number from the same time last year before United introduced its Denver flights, said Isaacs, speaking at a Tuesday meeting of the facility’s board.
Delta’s flights originating in Lewiston were running just less than 70% full while United’s flights have been close to 60% full during the winter when volume is historically low, he said.
“I think we’re definitely going to see those load factors max out for the summer for sure,” Isaacs said.
Many other towns across the country are less fortunate than Lewiston, including 55 that have lost air service since October and another 29 that have learned flights are going to be withdrawn, Isaacs said.
The changes are the result of a pilot shortage that has been building since 2013 when captains who had been with major airlines began leaving and there weren’t enough regional pilots to fill the openings, he said.
When commercial passenger air travel almost ground to a halt at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of air service employees accepted incentive packages they were offered to leave their positions, Isaacs said.
“Here we are with a strong rebound and not enough pilots,” he said. “I also found out that there’s not enough ground crews.”
In spite of the challenges other communities are encountering with air service, recent meetings with Lewiston airport officials and Delta and United have gone well, said Airport Board Chairman Gary Peters.
The airlines are aware of the strengths of the market including the thousands of tourists who board and disembark from multi-day river cruises that run between the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley and the Portland, Ore., area, he said.
“I think we’re in a really good place with them and staying ahead of it,” Peters said. “They’ve been fantastic.”
Despite this regional success, the Lewiston airport and airlines around the country are facing other challenges, he said.
Fuel pricing, staffing and the lingering impact of COVID-19 are shaping what airlines do, Peters said.
“We just really reinforced to them (Delta and United) that we want to be a partner through these rough times and step up everywhere we can and share information with them on … the opportunities we have coming,” he said.
In other business:
The board approved a remodeling project of a former travel agency at the airport terminal that is being converted to a cruise boat passenger lounge.
The project is expected to be finished by early June and will remove office walls to make the area more open. The cost of roughly $30,000 is being paid for by an anonymous donor. Additional upgrades are anticipated to be covered through donations as well.
The board also heard an update about the airport taking over certain emergency response services Oct. 1, which have historically been provided by the Lewiston Fire Department.
All of the airport’s maintenance and operations employees as well as Isaacs will take 40 hours of instruction in upcoming months in Helena, Mont. The training will teach them how to monitor all commercial passenger flights as well as charter flights of 30 passengers or more when they are departing and landing. If one were to crash, the personnel would drive a specially equipped firetruck to the scene and extinguish flames at aircraft exits to help passengers and crew evacuate. The initial response would be followed by firefighters and paramedics from the city of Lewiston and other jurisdictions arriving to treat victims and transport them to hospitals.
Board members also listened to a report about an upcoming emergency drill at the airport.
A mock airplane crash will be staged at the airport June 1. The Lewiston police and fire departments, St. Joseph Regional Medical Center in Lewiston, Tri-State Memorial Hospital in Clarkston and Life Flight are among those participating with the airport in the practice exercise, Isaacs said.