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Dan Johnson

BOISE — Lewiston Sen. Dan Johnson wants an interim legislative committee to help develop a long-term strategy for intrastate commercial air service in Idaho.

Legislation authorizing the creation of such a committee was introduced in the Senate Transportation Committee on Tuesday and sent directly to the Senate floor.

Johnson noted that changes in the airline industry, including the shift to larger aircraft, have created challenges for communities across the state. Lewiston, for example, lost direct flights to Seattle and Boise in 2018, after Horizon Air withdrew from the market. And at present, no airport in the state — including Boise — offers direct commercial flights to any other Idaho city.

“I think there’s a lot of opportunity to reconnect Idaho and bring some of this travel and business back to the state,” Johnson said. “As the state continues to grow, I think that becomes even more important.”

The resolution creates an 11-member committee. The Senate president pro tem and House speaker would each appoint one legislative member; those two co-chairs would then appoint the other nine members. They would include representatives from the airline industry, the business community, the Idaho Transportation Department, Idaho airports and the general public.

The proposal is modeled in part on steps Wyoming took to maintain and expand its commercial air access.

Shawn Burke with the Wyoming Department of Transportation spoke about those efforts during an Idaho Chamber Alliance luncheon in Boise on Tuesday.

Burke, the state’s air service development program manager, noted that Wyoming and Idaho face similar geographic and demographic challenges. They both have a number of smaller cities, which makes it difficult to fill up commercial flights — particularly as the industry moves to larger planes. As a result, the number of flights and destinations has diminished.

“Since 2013, we’ve lost about 15 percent of our (commercial airline) capacity,” Burke said. “We needed to do something to retain air service in these communities.”

The state enacted two programs, he said. One provides $1.3 million per year for marketing grants, airport improvement projects and airline revenue guarantees, which help augment the revenue from local passenger tickets.

More recently, the Wyoming Legislation appropriated $15 million for a “capacity purchase agreement,” or contract, with SkyWest Airlines to provide air service to four communities.

The money offsets some of the risk involved in serving smaller markets, Burke said. However, the contract also allows the state to share in some of the profits, if the service pans out.

“We’ve been able to reduce the per-person cost (of an airline ticket) by 25 percent,” he said. “We’re moving more people for less dollars.”

Johnson is considering legislation that would provide funding for similar programs in Idaho. However, the interim committee resolution doesn’t depend on that measure.

More than a dozen people from the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley and Palouse region made the trip to Boise to support Johnson’s resolution, including Pullman-Moscow Regional Airport Executive Director Tony Bean; Bill McKown, interim manager of the Lewiston-Nez Perce County Regional Airport; and Gary Peters, chairman of the Lewiston Airport Authority.

“I think this gives you a sense of the camaraderie and work that we’re trying to do together,” Johnson said.

Peters said the shift to larger planes is making it more and more difficult for smaller, regional communities to stay competitive in today’s commercial air market.

The Wyoming model “is a great example of how government can get involved to address niche air service,” he said. “They’re letting the airlines know how serious they are. Non-hub to non-hub service isn’t something the airlines look favorably upon. If you can get political leaders behind it, it’s a huge benefit.”

Johnson’s interim committee might help Lewiston and other Idaho communities land direct flights to Boise, Peters said. In the meantime, the Lewiston airport continues to explore opportunities for commercial flights to Seattle, Portland or other hub markets.

“We’re not waiting around (for the Idaho Legislature),” Peters said. “We’ll be reaching out to our business community in the next 60 to 90 days with some big fundraising goals. Then we’ll have the revenue to go to airlines with some revenue guarantees. We’re taking a far more aggressive approach.”

Johnson’s resolution could come up for a Senate vote as early as Friday. If it’s approved, it would then go to the House for further action.

Spence may be contacted at bspence@lmtribune.com or (208) 791-9168.