Pacific Coastal grounds Trail-Kelowna service

The last flight to the Okanagan-area city will leave the Trail Regional Airport on May 15.

After four months of taking to the Kootenay skies, Pacific Coastal’s flights from Trail to Kelowna have been suspended.

The last flight to the Okanagan-area city will leave the Trail Regional Airport on May 15.

Vice President of Commercial Services for the airline, Spencer Smith, says the suspension in service is because the flights were nowhere near as full as they needed to be to sustain the frequent flights as planned.

“At the end of the day, we were flying around with less than 20 per cent load factor,” he said. “It varies, but at the end of this past month, we were operating at less than 20 per cent and only generating half of the revenue that we needed to justify keeping the plane in the air.”

The flight schedule wasn’t intended to be temporary when it started at the beginning of the New Year, and Smith says the airline expects lower numbers at the outset of a new service, but hopes to eventually see them take off. However, ridership just went south from there.

“We’ve done this in other markets and we don’t expect it to be successful right off the top,” he said after the suspension announcement. “It needs some time, but we certainly expect within that startup phase, we would see some gradual growth and we weren’t. In fact, we were seeing some fairly significant decline.”

The flight schedule didn’t pan out for a number of reasons, says Smith, including, but not limited to, the weather this past winter.

“We figured it would be a predominantly winter-time market, which is why we started it in January,” he said. “We thought starting in the winter gave us the best opportunity to get people that are less inclined to go on the roads. It was the mildest winter ever, so that worked against us. Maybe in a different winter it would have worked better.”

With fledgling passenger numbers, Smith, along with Trail Mayor Mike Martin and many other community members, sat down to have a brainstorming session just a few weeks after the launch of the flight service, trying to come up with ideas to save the new flight schedule.

“We did put in every effort and worked with (Pacific Coastal) as part of creating public awareness as well as trying to get the necessary business buy in,” said Martin in a city press release about the suspension. “We also worked closely with the regional economic development office, Lower Columbia Initiatives Corporation (LCIC) and the Kelowna International Airport on a multilevel marketing strategy to further enhance awareness and increase passenger numbers both in Trail and in Kelowna.”

The marketing plan didn’t pan out, and the future of the Trail to Kelowna route is unknown at the moment. Both Smith and Martin say there may be more flights to come.

Martin, along with the LCIC, hope to compile the right amount and type of data, looking at the viability of potentially upcoming flights to the Okanagan.

“Through this partnership, our goal is to put together the necessary statistically-valid marketing data that will consider if the Kelowna or other routes can be supported out of Trail Regional Airport at this time,” he said. “If convenient air access to the Okanagan…can be demonstrated as part of a solid business case analysis, we will then look to pursue a service provider.”

The marketing data could include information on route demands, travel time, reason for travel, transportation connections and how much passengers are willing to pay and more.

Smith says Pacific Coastal could be looking into seasonal flight scheduling options. For example, offering the flights to Kelowna in the winter when roads are bad and recreation enthusiasts are packing up their skis.

“We certainly leaving it open to the notion, that if we are able to find the right way to make it work, that maybe we can come back and try again possibly in the fall and see what happens into the winter,” he said. “Hopefully we won’t see a winter that we had this year. (With ski tourism) it just didn’t happen this year.”

Those with reservations on flights from Trail to Kelowna leaving after May 15 will be giving a fill refund. Future fliers with a complimentary Trail to Kelowna certificate will now be able to apply that certificate to flights to Vancouver.

For more information, visit www.pacificcoastal.com.

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