By SEABORN LARSON Daily Inter Lake | December 18, 2016 at 5:00 am

Winter season direct flights launch this weekend

Paul and Gigi Rappaport of Whitefish wait at the Shuttle Network of Whitefish Bus stop on Wednesday morning, December 24, in downtown Whitefish. According the the ski report Big Mountain got nine inches of new snow bringing the total for the week to 30 inches. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

The holiday flight schedule is up and running at Glacier Park International Airport, bringing new visitors to the Flathead Valley from key metropolitan areas.

This winter, Glacier Airline Enhancement and Retention Outreach has secured a direct flight from San Francisco that will supplement the Chicago flight that continues to see increased occupancy since it started three years ago.

“I think we’ll be on pace or ahead of last year,” said AERO Chairman Paul Johannsen.

The nonstop Chicago flight is available Saturdays from Dec. 17 to April 1. The San Francisco flight has the same start date and runs through March 25.

Through the end of December, occupancy rates for the Chicago route on inbound flights average 93 percent and outbound flights average 82 percent. The first year the flight was available, the year-end load factor was 68 percent, topped by the second year at 80 percent.

“I think Chicago is a strong market for the Flathead Valley,” Johannsen said. “It has been, historically.”

The San Francisco flight has solid occupancy rates so far as well — 81 percent inbound and 50 percent outbound through the end of December — but the year in total so far averages 23 percent for both in and outbound flights.

In it’s first year for the Bay Area connection, Whitefish Convention and Visitors Bureau Director Dylan Boyle said filling those flights will take the same time and effort that made the Chicago flight a success in the last three years.

“Our goal is that we hope to mirror the success we’ve seen over the years with the Chicago flight,” he said. “From year to year, from any visitor data that we receive, California is always one of our top markets. It’s something you see year in and year out.”

Whitefish Mountain Resort also recognizes California as a valuable market. Spokesperson Riley Polumbus said resort marketing staffers have spent time in the Bay Area to build a presence, laying the groundwork for the new flight.

“You never know, with how things have been with the Canadian economy,” she said. “It’s certainly nice to expand our markets a bit and both of these flights have helped fill in the gaps. California, especially Northern California, has been a growing market for us, so this flight is key.”

This is what drove the Whitefish tourism office to commit a bigger marketing budget toward the Bay Area this year, Boyle said. The Whitefish Convention and Visitors Bureau partners in advertising with the Kalispell Convention and Visitors Bureau, Whitefish Mountain Resort and the state tourism office when playing in the Chicago and, now, San Francisco markets. The success they hope to mirror in San Francisco features an entire toolbox of advertising strategy: bus wraps, signs across public train systems, presence on relevant app services like On The Snow, and several others. Advertisements illustrate Big Mountain, the town of Whitefish and Glacier National Park in the winter, which Boyle said has become an underused asset to local tourism promoters.

“We are still battling that misconception that Glacier National Park is closed in the winter,” he said. “You can have all three of those experiences and have a really well-rounded trip that you’ll want to tell others about.”

Because travelers have been more apt to fly to the Flathead during the holidays, Boyle said the San Francisco advertising campaign will really ramp up in early 2017, when AERO will look to address the vacant plane seats at the end of its four-month season.

While the occupancy numbers might not match the Chicago flight this year, AERO will continue the San Francisco flight in the years ahead, giving the group a chance to develop a new core market.

“You can’t always bank on guaranteed success on the flight that first year,” Boyle said. “But that San Francisco flight is also on United. I believe they’ve seen the success we’ve had with Chicago and I think that’s why they felt confident about this one. It’s not just expanding the service; it’s a whole new flight. I feel like we’re on the right track to see that same sort of progress we’ve seen in Chicago.”

With a long-term commitment to new flight, Boyle said AERO knows San Francisco can provide more than just tourism numbers. A technology hub like San Francisco could potentially drive more telecommuters out of those metro areas and into the Flathead, building up the tax base, rather than the bed tax.

“When you’re looking at the AERO board, it’s all different stakeholders in the valley,” he said. “We have health care, manufacturing and tech; this opens up potential growth in those industries and that’s why we’re all finding common ground. It’s in the best interest of all of us to connect us further to those key markets.”

Reporter Seaborn Larson may be reached at 758-4441 or by email at