Empire editorial: Whitehorse direct flights are a good gamble for Juneau

Posted: Sunday, October 18, 2009

Local residents will have an additional travel option this winter courtesy of the Juneau Assembly.

City officials took a small risk Monday by voting 6-3 to guarantee 40 seats on three round-trip flights between Juneau and Whitehorse in Canada's Yukon Territory. The Assembly, however, will be obligated to pay for every unpurchased plane ticket.

With such little financial risk at stake - less than $30,000 if no tickets are sold - we see the Assembly's decision as a potential boon to business and an extra amenity for residents who can't afford a weekend getaway to Seattle or Anchorage. This forward-thinking strategy provides a new service to residents and economic opportunities for businesses. Compared to the gain, the risk is minimal.

Many Juneau residents, and Southeast residents for that matter, prefer traveling during the winter to ward off cabin fever, seasonal affective disorder or just for a change of scenery. Many who rely financially on summer tourism to get them through the year manage a tight budget the other seven months. At $240 per ticket, it's a smart buy for would-be travelers.

Due to the flights, Juneau will likely see more Canadian tourists this winter, who in turn will then spend money on hotels, food and souvenirs at locally-owned businesses. Even if the flights are half full, that would still bring about 60 more visitors to Juneau. Every tourist and dollar spent here matters. With the economy still recovering, re-establishing a Juneau to Whitehorse connection can potentially help stimulate the local economy. We also can safely assume that residents in other Southeast communities will take advantage of this new travel option.

Juneau to Whitehorse direct flights were discontinued in 2002 because too many seats were left vacant. That shouldn't be a problem this time around with just three flights offered, each being timed around a large annual event (Gallery Walk in December, Yukon Sled Dog Race in February and Alaska Folk Festival in April). Juneau has changed a lot since then, and it's reputation as a tourism Mecca has increased significantly. There may be a higher demand today than in 2002.

If successful, the proposal could lead to more flights during other events such as the Klondike Road Relay and Gold Medal Basketball Tournament.

Mayor Bruce Botelho said he is hopeful regular, weekly air service will be re-instituted by summer 2010. Though there may not be a demand for weekly flights, which no one can say for sure at this time, there is certainly a demand to visit Whitehorse - and for the Assembly to be proactive in encouraging new business and to develop new opportunities for residents.

The Assembly's proposal is at least worth exploring, especially for the amount of money involved.

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