Could the Boise Airport become a regional hub for business travel? Will a facility for loading and unloading air, rail and truck freight materialize near the airport? Will we ever get a nonstop to a major East Coast destination?
The truth is that city leaders and the Treasure Valley’s business community hope all three happen. The fact that people these days talk seriously about them is an indication of how far the Boise Airport has come in recovering from the Great Recession.
Almost five years ago, in a still-wobbly economy, Southwest Airlines discontinued service to Reno, Seattle and Salt Lake City, reducing the number of nonstop flights operating out of Boise to 15. Today, that number is 20. The total number of passengers is still down — not quite 3 million last year — about halfway between the peak of almost 3.4 million in 2007 and 2012’s valley of 2.6 million.
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In a way, Boise’s air service is in better shape than it was in 2007, when there were 22 nonstops. In those days, Boise’s regional destinations included Idaho Falls, Bozeman, Mont., and Missoula, Mont. Those flights went away and haven’t returned.
But today’s list features flights to Dallas and Houston — both major hubs that didn’t have direct connections to Boise in 2008. The addition of those flights is “huge” for members of the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce, president and CEO Bill Connors said.
Overall, Connors said he’s pretty satisfied with Boise’s air service right now.
“It’s nothing like it was five years ago,” he said. “Five years ago, (loss of flights) was creating all sorts of havoc with businesses.”
Given the state of air service right now and the size of our airport, the size of our market relative to others, I think we’re doing incredibly well.
Boise City Council President Elaine Clegg
Air service might be more important to commerce and economic development in Boise than most cities because of its isolation.
Depending on how you define a major city, Boise is either the most isolated one in America or it rivals other candidates, such as Denver and Salt Lake City.
A robust supply of flights lets businesspeople here have their cake and eat it, too. They need to bring clients or business associates in, send goods out, and visit people who buy and sell products in other cities. But as much as they need fast, convenient travel connections to big cities such as San Francisco, Seattle or New York City, many chose to live and grow companies in Boise because it’s not those places.
A business traveler can arrive home in Boise in the early evening and take a Foothills bike ride before it gets dark. The same traveler can sleep in knowing the trip from home, through airport security and to the gate takes a fraction of the time it would take in Chicago.
For people such as Nic Miller, Boise’s economic development director, the airport’s future has become a microcosm of the future of Boise itself. They want more and more convenient connections to the outside world, just like they want more jobs and more money in the local economy. Just as keenly, though, they want to make sure growth’s side effects don’t cost Boise the lifestyle that makes people want to live here, just like big city-style waiting lines could make the airport a lot less fun.
“That’s a balancing act that the city and the airport and the entire community have to participate in and watch very closely,” Miller said.
If you’re not growing, then you’re moving the other direction. But as you grow, how do you maintain and preserve what makes your community great?
Boise economic development director Nic Miller
Miller said the reason the city put locally branded shops — Idaho Statesman, River City Coffee and Bardenay, to name a few — inside the airport was to give a taste of life here to travelers whose first impression of Boise might be the terminal.
“Often times, if you’re in an airport, you wouldn’t know if you’re in Chicago, New York or Guatemala City, right?” he said. “There’s your Qdoba, your pretzel shop, whatever else. And I think that our airport looks and feels and really is different.”
ATL OR NYC?
The Boise Airport still hasn’t recovered one big casualty of the Great Recession that businesspeople would love to have back: a direct connection to a major city in the East.
Between June 2005 and November 2006, Delta Airlines operated a daily nonstop flight to Atlanta, the busiest airport in the world. The airline shifted the flight to summertime seasonal service in May 2007 and canceled it in 2009.
Besides the Southeast, the flight put Boise within reach of every major eastern population center, as well as South American destinations such as Santo Domingo, Caracas and Bogota.
Rebecca Hupp has been trying to establish a nonstop connection to a major East Coast city since she became airport director in 2012. Two years ago, on its second try, the airport won a U.S. Department of Transportation grant to help Delta restart its Boise-Atlanta flight. Delta wrote a letter in support of the city’s grant application. So far, the grant money hasn’t been spent because the flight hasn’t materialized.
Hupp said Delta is focused on expanding its service out of Seattle, so it might be difficult to convince the airline that now is the right time to dedicate a big airplane and crew to a Boise-Atlanta connection.
“We have to look at what is the airline looking at?” she said. “How do we fit in with their focus on Seattle? Can we convince them that Atlanta would be a good thing? So air service development always has to take shape in the context of the airlines’ overall philosophy.”
We are continually in discussions and conversations with the airlines about adding service.
Boise Airport director Rebecca Hupp
There’s another possible destination. Boise’s grant application listed Atlanta as the primary target connection, but New York City was an alternative if that fell through, Hupp said.
The airport needs to apply for an extension of the federal grant before it expires — typically two years after being awarded. Hupp thinks the Transportation Department will grant the extension.
Meanwhile, she’s constantly trying to sell airlines on opening an East Coast connection.
“Not only do we have to show that it would be a profitable market for them and one that would complement their existing route structure, but we also would have to show them that it’s better to come here than to go to someplace else,” Hupp said. “Because, really, you’re competing against other communities for that service.”
Hupp said she’s “cautiously optimistic.” Connors is more optimistic than cautious. He thinks a major East Coast nonstop is just a matter of time.
“Boise’s growth is going to dictate whether that happens or not,” he said. “And right now, that growth seems to be on a pretty steady stream.”
Besides an East Coast flight, Connors said Boise’s business community would benefit from more short-distance connections to places such as Idaho Falls or Billings, Mont.
He said plenty of companies in Boise have business relationships in those smaller hubs in the region and would benefit from direct flights to them.
As isolated as we are, it’s difficult to get in and out of here, and so if you don’t have good air service it’s really hard to have an entrepreneurial economy.
Boise City Council President Elaine Clegg
As with the East Coast nonstop, unrelated circumstances may play heavily in whether Boise sees an expansion of regional routes. In this case, however, luck might be on Boise’s side.
Hupp pointed to Alaska Airlines’ recently announced acquisition of Virgin America. Alaska has more nonstops from Boise than any other carrier, mostly on short-range routes. Virgin America flies all over the United States. Horizon Air, a division of Alaska, recently ordered dozens of new jets, with the first units scheduled for delivery next year.
There are no guarantees, Hupp said, but Alaska’s footprint here could give Boise an edge in bringing in more flights.
“It’s not really clear how they’ll structure air service moving forward,” she said. “We don’t have Virgin here, so that could be a real opportunity for Boise to connect some dots.”
‘MEMPHIS OF THE WEST’
Economic cheerleaders around Boise have long hoped for a what’s known as a “trans-load facility” somewhere near the airport.
That’s a place where cargo can be moved between trains and trucks — and, if the location is right, planes, too. That sounds simple enough, but the only ones that exist in Idaho are privately owned, Boise City Council President Elaine Clegg said.
Right now, to load and unload freight between trucks and trains requires a trip to Salt Lake City, Spokane or Portland, Clegg said.
Watco Companies, a Pittsburgh-based railroad company, is considering a partnership with the city to build a trans-load facility on 200 acres of property east of the Boise Airport’s runways. A city-owned railroad spur running through town touches that piece of land, and that’s not the only benefit, Miller said.
“You’re less than three miles from the largest airport in the state,” he said. “You are less than a mile from two freeway interchanges that have been upgraded. And you’re less than seven miles from the Downtown of the largest urban center in your state. So there’s a ton of opportunity out there.”
Connors said a freight hub is another amenity members of the Chamber would like to have. Connors looks at the city’s land and sees a perfect location for a future hub to rival one of the world’s biggest, at Memphis International Airport in Tennessee.
“We’ve got better weather. We’ve got no encroachment on the airport. We’ve got this planes, trains and automobiles piece,” he said. “Heck, why not? And we’d be a million times cheaper to do business in than San Francisco or Seattle...We have these three stars aligning in one location. Maybe somebody ought to exploit that.”
Clegg said the city of Boise is studying whether the property is, in fact, such a great location for a rail-truck cargo hub. The city might even be able to cover some of the facility’s cost with money the federal government sets aside to improve freight movement throughout the country, she said.
A third runway?
An update to the Boise Airport’s master plan will consider, among other things, when or if the airport should add a third runway, director Rebecca Hupp said.
Talk of a third runway has intensified in recent years as military leaders consider replacing the Idaho Air National Guard’s Boise-based fleet of A-10 aircraft with F-35 or F-15 fighter jets . The F-35 and F-15 are much louder than the A-10s, which take off and land on the same two runways commercial flights use at the Boise Airport.
The U.S. Air Force has proposed grounding all A-10 aircraft and moving Boise’s flying mission to Mountain Home. Local politicians and economic experts want to keep some kind of military fleet in Boise because of the jobs it generates. Likewise, local National Guard officers want to avoid moving the fleet to Mountain Home because they worry it would hamper their recruiting efforts.
Some city leaders support expanding an existing airstrip that’s located about one mile south and a little bit east of the main runways. It would be used for military flights, reducing noise in neighborhoods to the north and west of the existing runways.
Besides making the airstrip longer and wider, the third runway would need a taxiway to connect it to the rest of the airport, roads, lights and other infrastructure. All of that is expensive. Hupp said the airport’s two existing runways are enough to handle commercial traffic for now.
“So unless there was a significant increase in the number of operations, we wouldn’t need to build the third runway strictly for operational capacity,” she said. “We could build it to separate military aircraft from civilian. We could build it as part of a noise compatibility program.”