An initial assessment of how to expand commercial air service within Idaho should be completed by early January, an interim legislative committee learned Wednesday.

The interim Intrastate Air Services Committee hired the consulting firm of Mead & Hunt in September to analyze air service in the state. The goal is to improve connectivity within Idaho by expanding commercial flight opportunities.

There is currently no regularly scheduled commercial air service between the Gem State’s largest communities. Direct flights between Lewiston and Boise ended two years ago, after Alaska Airlines Horizon Air withdrew from the market.

During an interim committee meeting in Boise on Wednesday, Jeffrey Hartz, managing director of air services for Mead & Hunt, said the company’s market analysis should be completed within 90 days.

The final report will include an overview of current and historical intrastate air service in Idaho, he said, as well as passenger demand estimates along different routes, profitability estimates based on different aircraft types and recommendations for how to recruit airlines.

The first step will be getting feedback from different communities around Idaho, Hartz said. That will help identify specific business issues, university events and other local activities that could drive demand for air service.

The bulk of the analysis, however, will depend on cellphone location data, which highlights how much in-state vehicle travel there is between different communities.

Although the data is anonymous, “it sometimes verges on creepy,” Hartz said. “These giant databases know where a person typically spends their evening and will identify that as their home ZIP code.”

That information helps filter out people who are simply traveling through Idaho, to and from other states, and lets analysts estimate how many people travel between Boise and Twin Falls, for example, or between Boise and Lewiston.

“We’ll utilize GPS tracking data to estimate the total drive market,” Hartz said.

The report will also estimate what percentage of that market might be willing to fly instead of drive — a figure that depends both on the distance traveled and the potential ticket price.

“That will be a big part of the demand assessment,” he said. People making the two-hour drive from Twin Falls to Boise will have a different propensity to fly than people driving from Lewiston to Boise.

Once Mead & Hunt has an estimate of the potential market demand, Hartz said, it will start looking at what type of commercial aircraft could best serve a particular route. That’s based both on the number of seats needed, as well as other characteristics such as terrain or altitude.

What type of aircraft is used is a major factor in the profitability of any given route, he said. It also helps determine which airlines, if any, might be able to serve the market.

Sen. Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston, introduced legislation in the 2020 session that authorized the formation of the interim study committee. He and Rep. Caroline Troy, R-Genesee, serve as its co-chairpeople.

Johnson said his initial thought was that Idaho could contract with an individual air carrier by offering a “package deal” that included some intrastate routes that were more profitable, as well as others that might be a bit less profitable.

“If the goal is to connect Idaho, improve travel and support economic development, I’d be interested in having (multiple) routes,” he said. “But is it reasonable or likely that we could do something like that?”

Given the current state of commercial air travel and uncertainties about when demand will return to pre-coronavirus levels, Hartz said convincing any airline to expand service in Idaho in the next six to 12 months will be a “massive challenge.”

However, he also noted that airlines typically won’t move into a market if only a single route is available.

“Most airlines need some economies of scale to serve a given region,” he said. “So if they aren’t already in an area, there will need to be some type of (route) network involved.”

It’s possible a combination of financial incentives and guarantees will be needed to attract an intrastate carrier to Idaho, Hartz said. That’s another issue the final report will consider, along with potential funding sources for such incentives.

Wednesday’s meeting lasted about an hour. The committee plans to meet at least one more time before a draft report is available in early January; however, a date for the next meeting hasn’t yet been set.

Video of Wednesday’s meeting, as well as two previous meetings, can be found online at legislature.idaho.gov/sessioninfo/2020/interim/icas.

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

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