WARRENTON - A fledgling airline is planning to begin air service between the North Coast and Portland in January.
Columbia Pacific Airlines plans to offer three round-trip flights to Portland, one in the early morning, one mid-morning and one in the evening, according to John Overholser, the airline's owner and operator.
Overholser recently bought a 10-seat Navajo Chieftain airplane that will make the flight in 30 to 35 minutes, for an introductory price of $50 for a one-way ticket.
"We're dedicated to serving Astoria," said Overholser, who also runs Astoria Flight Service and the Runway Cafe at the Astoria Regional Airport in Warrenton. "We live here and we'll make every effort to make it happen."
Overholser said it is this commitment to the community that will allow Columbia Pacific to succeed where other airlines have failed. In addition, the plane will be kept in Astoria overnight, eliminating problems previous airlines had in getting the plane here in bad weather.
Empire Airlines served the area for less than two months in 1994, Horizon Air operated from July 1994 to August 1995, and Harbor Air left the Astoria market after a year and a half in November 1998.
Even though these airlines left, there was a demand for flights, said Ron Larson, airport manager with the Port of Astoria, which owns the airport. When Horizon was operating flights, it had 950 passengers a month. Horizon left because they wanted to get rid of the airplanes it was using for the route, he said. Harbor was not reliable, Larson added, and people lost confidence.
"There certainly is a market here," Larson said. "The port certainly feels that the community deserves to have airline service, and we certainly want to help (Overholser) in his endeavor to create airline service in any way that we can."
Both Larson and Overholser stress that air service will help attract businesses and visitors.
"It's something that people ask when they're moving to the area, is 'do they have air service?'" said Overholser. "It will help keep the area viable and growing."
Overholser, who was a pilot with Horizon for more than eight years and a mechanic with the airline for two years, has already hired a pilot and a mechanic for Columbia Pacific, both of whom worked previously with the Columbia River Bar Pilot's helicopter operation. He is expecting to fill a few more positions, including a check-in agent and an office manager.
Before the airline starts ferrying passengers, however, it has to get approval from the Federal Aviation Administration. Overholser has submitted the required paperwork to the agency, but the FAA still needs to approve the plans, and visit to inspect the plane, inspect the company's training records and programs, and perform other check-ups. The leases for gate space in Portland and arrangements for the terminal at the Astoria Airport still need to be made as well.
Overholser wants to set up the airline so that passengers can go through security in Astoria and then not have to do so again at the Portland airport; to do that the port would need to come up with a new security manual.
Larson said he is working with the Transportation Security Administration to see what kind of changes are necessary to the current plan, which was based on old rules and regulations that were in effect prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The port already has a magnetometer that screens people and an X-ray machine that screens baggage, which were bought for previous air services.
Although a lot of paperwork remains, Overholser said he thinks the business will be ready for flight early next year. He is planning on starting small, but possibly expanding the service to Seattle or small cities in the Northwest like Newport.
"I hope that it's successful, the community accepts it, and it becomes a viable and integral part of our community," said Overholser. "We have a wonderful airport; it just needs to be utilized."
Columbia Pacific will have its unveiling at the Astoria Air Fair at 12:30 p.m. Saturday at the airport.