Lewiston Airport offers warm welcome for the friendly skies

Oct. 3—The United logo shows on two screens behind ticket counters at the Lewiston-Nez Perce County Regional Airport, foreshadowing the start this week of daily flights between the transportation hub and Denver.

The emblem belonging to one of the nation's largest airlines is a visible sign of preparations being completed ahead of the arrival of the flight at 9:36 p.m. Tuesday. The plane will depart for Denver at 5:41 a.m. the next day, beginning a schedule of a daily early morning departure and an evening arrival.

The work to ready the facility reflects how important the United Denver flights, which will be operated by SkyWest, are to backers of the Lewiston airport.

They describe the new nonstop destination as a major step forward for the facility and the region, which suffered a significant setback when Alaska Airlines' Horizon Air withdrew its Seattle and Boise flights from Lewiston three years ago. Adding air service has been the highest priority for the Lewiston airport since then, airport Director Michael Isaacs said in an email.

"This was no easy task, considering the aviation industry challenges with crew shortages, aircraft fleet shortages, high fuel costs and COVID-19," Isaacs said. "Competition among cities is fierce nationwide because they realize air service is directly related to the economic growth."

United will receive $4 million in incentives in a three-year deal.

Nez Perce County, which owns the airport with the city of Lewiston, is providing a first-year payment of $1.75 million from its $7.8 million allocation from the American Rescue Plan Act. The airport will pay $1.25 million in the second year and $1 million in the third year.

That money is anticipated to bring large dividends to the region.

The addition of United will "improve existing businesses, attract new businesses and draw more tourism into the region," Isaacs said.

One of the companies the air service expansion will help is Lewiston's CCI/Speer Ammunition, part of Vista Outdoor, one of the largest private employers in the area.

Lewiston is a great place to do business with a "top-notch labor pool, community partners, who support our operations, and world-class access to the outdoors," said Bill Mackleit, senior director of operations at CCI/Speer Ammunition in a text.

"The new routes at the airport expand these advantages and will support CCI and Speer as we serve our suppliers and customers nationwide," Mackleit said.

The Denver flights also will benefit the overnight cruise boat industry that operates between Clarkston and western Oregon on the Snake and Columbia rivers, said Michelle Peters, president and CEO of Visit Lewis Clark Valley, a not-for-profit group that promotes tourism, in an email.

"The 19,000 annual ... (visitors) that embark and disembark on their ... cruises... will have more selections and competitive fares," Peters said. "This will help capture more passengers using (the Lewiston airport) instead of having them fly in and out of Spokane."

A number of steps are being taken to welcome the first flight and upgrade the Lewiston airport so it can accommodate the United passengers as well as the customers of Delta's continuing Salt Lake City flights, which also are operated by SkyWest.

Airport officials will gather with government and business leaders Tuesday at the airport terminal about 90 minutes before the plane lands to hear presentations about the effort that succeeded in recruiting United, airport authority Board Chairman Gary Peters said.

The 50-passenger plane will go under an arch of water that will be pumped from the airport's two fire trucks.

The plane's passengers, including more than 30 who have already booked seats on the flight, will walk underneath an arch made of balloons in the terminal, which has undergone hundreds of thousands of dollars in renovations.

The most significant is an expansion of the waiting room behind the Transportation Security Administration checkpoint. It was doubled in size to about 2,000 square feet in a $250,000 project.

The city of Lewiston and Nez Perce County each covered half of the expense.

The extra space will help handle United and Delta's early morning departures that leave about the same time and allow passengers to stay socially distanced as a COVID-19 safety precaution, Peters said.

"This was a big box that we needed to check to start," he said.

The new half of the waiting area is on the second floor of the terminal and is connected to the main floor with a recently installed staircase.

Its amenities will go beyond providing more room.

Chairs with charging stations for electronic devices were being placed on the upper story last week.

Walls were reconfigured so passengers who have cleared security will have access to a men's bathroom and a women's restroom. Previously the only restroom in the secure area was a single unisex bathroom on the main floor.

United isn't the only airline growing in the area this year. Alaska Airlines debuted direct flights between the Pullman-Moscow Regional Airport and Boise on Aug. 18 and maintained its Pullman-Seattle flights.

That service was introduced with a revenue guarantee agreement between the airline and the University of Idaho, in which the school will pay as much as $500,000 a year if the flights do not make at least a 10 percent profit.

The Pullman airport is waiving its landing fee for the flights and is providing at least $25,000 to market the route.

In August, the flights ran about 35 percent full, but passenger numbers are growing, and new numbers will be available Tuesday, said Tony Bean, Pullman airport executive director.

"The indications we've seen are they are certainly getting stronger," Bean said. "How much stronger, we don't know yet."

All the changes at the Lewiston airport, including the new route starting this week to Denver, took more than a year of behind-the-scenes work.

"The (COVID-19) pandemic and a few other obstacles along the way definitely created a few challenges," Peters said in an email, "... but we stayed the course and have an amazing team of people that put in a tremendous amount of hard work to make this a reality."

Williams may be contacted at ewilliam@lmtribune.com or (208) 848-2261.