The secret to maintaining airline service to rural Oregon towns: downsize the ride.
ON THE DARK, chilly morning of December 2, 2008, a few passengers walked across the tarmac at the Pendleton airport to a nine-seater Pilatus PC-12 turboprop scheduled to make the 175-mile flight to Portland International Airport. Had they made their trip just two months earlier, they would have boarded a thirty-seven-seat Q200 operated by Horizon Air, the carrier that served the city for twenty-six years. But when Horizon cut its Pendleton—Portland route on October 28 and then cut Pendleton—Seattle service on December 1, SeaPort Airlines, a small, Portland-based aviation company, became the town’s sole airline.
The shift to tiny planes and a tiny airline suits most of Pendleton’s some 17,250 denizens just fine. “SeaPort has the right size plane, the right schedule, the right destination,” says Larry Dalrymple, manager of the Eastern Oregon Regional Airport at Pendleton.
Over the past couple of years, high fuel prices have forced many large airlines to drop service to small towns altogether, a trend with serious consequences for our largely rural state. On October 9, Delta eliminated service to Salem, leaving the state capital without a major carrier. And as of October 11, Horizon cut flights between Portland and the cities of Klamath Falls and Coos Bay/North Bend, sending the governor’s office, along with local governments and businesses, scrambling to put together a financial-incentive package sizable enough to woo United Airlines/SkyWest to pick up the service. “Continued air service to all parts of Oregon is critical for our state’s economic development,” says Dan Clem, director of the Oregon Department of Aviation.
But the situation in Pendleton, where the airport is also a hub for the I-84 towns of LaGrande and Hermiston, was more complicated. Since 2004, the US Department of Transportation had awarded Horizon an Essential Air Service subsidy (government funds that help guarantee service to small towns) to maintain the Pendleton—Portland- route, among others. But in October, Horizon phased out its thirty-seven-seat planes in favor of seventy-six-seat Bombardier Q400s. With the Pendleton—Portland flights averaging just seven passengers per load in 2007, the airline requested $3.5 million in subsidies to keep the route in place for two years—up from the $750,000 it had received for the previous two-year period. Or, for just $1.5 million in government cash, Horizon offered to fly Pendleton’s passengers to Walla Walla and then Seattle—where they could catch a flight to PDX. To Dalrymple and the Pendleton city council, who recommend which airline should get the subsidies, this option was unacceptable.
Enter SeaPort. Not only did the airline offer to take over the Pendleton—Portland route for just $1.57 million in subsidies (nine-seat planes are cheaper to operate than thirty-seven-seaters, after all), but it proposed a better schedule, one that would allow businesspeople from Eastern Oregon to spend a full day in Portland. The company ultimately won the contract.
It’s about to become more common in Oregon for small planes to fly short distances to small towns. On November 12, SeaPort won subsidies for routes from Portland to Newport and Astoria. According to SeaPort CEO Kent Craford, the company simply is expanding on a business model that its sister operation, Wings of Alaska, has been perfecting since 1982 in the Last Frontier, where it flies six routes.
Flying small has its advantages. For one thing, the Federal Aviation Administration designates the Pilatus PC-12 turboprop a Part 135 aircraft (a plane with nine seats or fewer), which means that passengers needn’t go through airport security. Instead of arriving at the airport two hours early, passengers can arrive a mere fifteen minutes before departure. Dalrymple hopes the perk, coupled with the better flight schedule, will convince more people to fly out of his airport.
“Maybe we’ll even have Washington folks taking the drive to Pendleton for a quick jump to Portland,” he says. The goal, he says, is to get people off of I-84 and into the air.