After a meeting Friday with City of Newport leaders and two airlines, Port of Astoria Executive Director Jack Crider said Cape Air of Massachusetts was the obvious choice to provide passenger air service between the coast and Portland.
"Certainly as far as experience and their aircraft they were definitely ahead," he said.
But the selection may be clouded by complaints about the process from a third airline.
The selection won't be made until the Newport City Council meets and votes on the issue next week. The Port of Astoria's air service committee, made up of commissioners Floyd Holcom and Larry Pfund will submit their preferences to the City Council, and the Council will have the final vote.
The two agencies held a joint meeting Friday in Newport to interview officials with the two companies that responded to a request for proposals earlier this year. Cape Air and Air Azul of Florida submitted proposals to provide at least two daily, nine-passenger flights to Portland from each city.
Astoria and Newport leaders rated the two proposals based on the cost, the number and type of airplanes available, the number of staff the service would require, the experience of the company's leadership, the company's marketing plan and its commitment to service after the last government subsidy payment.
A third company could complicate the selection process, said Port of Astoria Director of Operations Ron Larsen.
An attorney for Portland-based SeaPort Airlines attended the meeting Friday. SeaPort, which flies between Portland and Seattle, was included in the request for proposals but never submitted a proposal, Larsen said. The company is talking with Newport counsel about the legality of the selection process.
"It's unfortunate because I think everyone would have liked to have had a proposal from them," Larsen said. "You certainly want to look at anyone local, but we did not receive a proposal from them."
Gary Firestone, attorney for the city of Newport, said the company is asking the city to re-open the proposal process because it did not receive a copy of the request for proposals.
"Because of that they're saying the process was flawed," Firestone said. "Our position is that we did send the request for proposals to them."
In a letter to The Daily Astorian, Michele Longo Eder, an attorney representing SeaPort Airlines, criticised the Port of Astoria and the City of Newport for considering a contract with an out-of-state company without a competitive bidding process.
The request for proposals was "circulated quietly and only to hand-picked air carriers," Eder wrote. SeaPort Airlines was left out of the process, she said, and by the time the company found out about the request, it was too late to submit a proposal.
Firestone said it will be up to the city Council and the Port of Astoria Commission to decide whether to accept additional air service proposals.
Newport City Council meets Aug. 18. The Port of Astoria Commission has a special meeting at 4 p.m. Tuesday and a regular meeting at 6 p.m. Aug. 19.
The Port of Astoria and the city of Newport have a $3.6 million grant through the state's ConnectOregon II program to subsidize the cost of establishing air service.
Using the state grant and $740,000 in matching funds from the U.S. Department of Transportation, the City of Newport and the Port will initially offset airline expenses that aren't covered by income from ticket sales.
The idea is to minimize the risk for the airline to establish service in a new community. Ideally, the business would pay for itself, but the grants will cover any overages in the beginning.
Over time, as profits grow and the subsidies are spent, the company should be able to maintain the service without subsidies.
The effort to bring air service back to the coast comes as rising fuel prices and stagnant ticket sales are causing airlines to abandon their flights to smaller markets elsewhere in Oregon.
But Larsen said using nine-passenger planes will make flights from Astoria and Newport to Portland more affordable.
Several companies have tried to provide air service between Astoria and Portland in the last 15 years. Empire Airlines was the first in 1994, but its service lasted just two months. Horizon Air served Astoria in 1995, but left after deciding to replace its smaller airplanes with bigger ones. And Harbor Air, which lasted the longest, served Astoria from 1997 to 1999.
Cape Air has proposed serving Astoria and Newport with the nine-passenger Cessna 402 aircraft. It has a similar arrangement in Indiana between Indianapolis and the towns of Evansville and South Bend.
The Cape Air service from the coast to Portland would be less frequent in the dead of winter, with two trips per day January through March, and more frequent in the summer, with five flights a day June through September.
The company would have three planes covering the two routes. It would charge $80 for a one-way ticket from Newport to Portland, and $70 from Astoria to Portland.