It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who flies in and out of Twin Falls or other Southern Idaho airports that Delta Air Lines is trimming its Salt Lake daily flights from three flights to one for Twin Falls. The COVID pandemic has affected the airline industry all across the country as fewer people fly and the airlines have imposed mask restrictions and other measures.
Sure it’s a loss but probably a temporary one. Flights in and out of Twin Falls have varied over the decades, rising and falling with customer demand and the overall economy. The same pattern exists for other small regional markets. The new alternative flight to and from Denver siphoned off some eastbound travelers who previously were changing planes in Salt Lake City and sometimes again to get to the East Coast.
The airline industry has had to reshape flight schedules and frequencies all over the country. Western smaller communities such as Twin Falls, have been among those hurt the most because they’re often farther away from Boise or other regional hubs such as Spokane.
Losing flights is no community picnic, but is mostly one of temporary inconvenience. We see this same pattern in other Western communities with similar smaller airports and long distances to the closest hubs. These locations have suffered similar ups and downs over the decades. Just this year, for example, flights in and out of Pocatello were reduced, while air traffic to Idaho Falls has remained steady, and Lewiston picked up additional air service direct to and from Denver.
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Years ago when airlines were subsidized by tax dollars to serve smaller communities, there were bigger planes but often little frequency. With the ending of airline subsidization, airlines have had to make difficult choices on which cities to serve and how often. That affects airports directly.
Other factors have played an influence here too, beyond the COVID pandemic. More fuel-efficient planes, often with extra seating, allows airlines to shape flight patterns to meet changing demands and conditions.
To some degree we saw the same during the economic contraction in the 2008 – 2011Recession. As that contraction lessened, flights returned to Twin Falls and its major hub, Salt Lake City. Boardings and freight both took a hit and certainly, customer convenience and amenities declined.
On the upside, the current economic environment gave airlines the ability to drop most “pet” and “emotional support” animals as flying partners, which was a good thing. If you’ve flown next to a yapping toy dog or a meowing cat, you know true annoyance. People were taking advantage of the pet rule as a way of saving money and get fie-fie on a flight without putting fie-fie in the cargo hold. The airlines put up with this for too long and new restrictions are a welcome change.
As to the future, no one should worry that the flights to and from Salt Lake City will return. They will, as the economy improves, the pandemic lessens and business and convenience travel pick up again. In the meantime, we still have a daily flight to and from Salt Lake, as well as the new Denver connection.
These two represent about what the Magic Valley can support currently. You can still fly pretty much anywhere by boarding in Twin Falls, which has free parking, and a modern terminal that befits the size of the market.
The city, the airlines, and economic development efforts have all made it clear that air service to this smaller community in the West will continue and they deserve credit for staying with it despite challenges.
The Magic Valley is still more than hundred miles from Boise and almost twice that far from Salt Lake City. That distance hasn’t changed. The geography of location means that were subject to changing transportation patterns. They affect cities large and small, including Boise and Twin Falls. So take heart, Southern Idahoans. We’ll get the flights back. We just don’t know when.
Stephen Hartgen, Twin Falls, is a retired five-term Republican member of the Idaho House of Representatives, where he served as chairman of the Commerce & Human Resources Committee. Previously, he was editor and publisher of The Times-News (1982-2005). He can be reached at Stephen_Hartgen@hotmail.com