Connections could start in spring of 2019

By Ashley Ahearn

For the past two years, business leaders and officials at Pangborn Airport and the Port of Chelan have been building up to a major new frontier in aviation options for people in Wenatchee and the surrounding areas: a direct flight to the San Francisco Bay area.

Local businesses pledged $400,000 in what’s known as a “Revenue Guarantee” to lure airlines to service the Wenatchee airport. If the flight to the Bay Area isn’t popular and ticket revenues don’t cover the costs to the airline that provides the flight, the pledge money will go to the airline to cover its losses.

Proponents of the Bay Area flights also applied to the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) for a $750,000 small community air service development grant.

Trent Moyers, director of Pangborn Airport, is on pins and needles right now, as he waits for word from the USDOT about the grant. “We thought we’d have heard by now or before the end of April and it just hasn’t happened. That’s out of our control as far as that goes,” Moyers said. “We’re hopeful that it happens soon so we can start talking to airlines and negotiating to start service next spring.”

SkyWest sent a letter of support for the grant application, but a deal has not been confirmed. Currently, Alaska Airlines, via Horizon Air, is the only commercial airline servicing Pangborn. The airline had been offering three flights from Wenatchee to Seattle daily, but just added a fourth this past Sunday.

Salt Lake City, Los Angeles and Denver were also considered as direct flight destinations from Pangborn.

Supportive community

“The community in general has been very supportive of the idea of getting service to the Bay Area, and more service begets more service begets more service,” Moyers said.  

Supporters of the Bay Area flight offering say there is already demand. According to Pangborn Airport research, currently 62 people a day travel from the Wenatchee region to the Bay Area via SeaTac Airport, an increase of 39 percent since 2013.

Craig Larsen with the Port of Chelan has been spearheading the deal. He said the data indicated that the Bay Area was a good bet. “We looked at the statistics about where people are flying, and potential hubs,” Larsen said. “That was the one we wanted. A big part of that was the tech industry in the Quincy area with the data centers.”

Microsoft, which has a presence in the region, was one of the supporters of the Bay Area flight. A San Francisco-based diamond maker has also recently opened a manufacturing facility in Wenatchee and plans to start production this summer.

The company, Diamond Foundry, developed a method to make gem-quality diamonds in the lab, thereby avoiding diamond mining in conflict zones. It’s just one of a number of businesses that see a potential for expansion in the Wenatchee region, Larsen said.

Local implications

Expansion of service to the Bay Area could also have implications for the Methow Valley and Okanogan County, which would become more convenient to reach from California.

The owner of Coldwell Banker Winthrop Realty pledged more than $20,000 towards the Revenue Guarantee for the San Francisco flight proposal. “I believe we can draw more investment in real estate as second homes, primary homes for telecommuting high-tech employees, and from investment in more housing in the Methow Valley,” said Adam Rynd, who also owns Coldwell Banker Lake Chelan Properties, Sage Vacation Rentals and Swim World. “The Bay Area is thriving and our community can benefit from increased commerce, year-round tourism, and even remote workers from the high-tech industry who choose to make their home here and invest in the community.”

Larsen, with the Port of Chelan, sees an untapped opportunity to draw more tourism from the Bay Area.

“There’s millions of people in central California with high incomes that love to travel,” Larsen added. “Maybe they’ve done Bend, time to try Okanogan County.”

Housing prices in Bend have risen in recent years, in part due to an influx of so-called “super commuters” who buy homes in Bend and then commute by airplane to Silicon Valley or elsewhere each week.

“The reality is we have people that are commuting to San Francisco already, at some level,” Larsen said. “I certainly understand the concern about balancing growth and livability. It’s certainly an issue.”   

In 2016 Pangborn, completed a runway expansion that enables it to handle 737 jets, however the proposed route to San Francisco would be serviced by regional jets, which seat 70-75 people, Larsen said.