SeaPort Airlines passenger service to and from the Astoria Regional Airport is now in its second year of providing service from Portland to the coast.
The air service's startup locally is being subsidized by a Connect Oregon II state transportation infrastructure grant, giving the company two years to make the service profitable before the municipal boost runs out. That two-year window is now a little more than half over.
The SeaPort subsidy grant includes service to Newport and Astoria. Flights between Newport and Portland are running about half full. Not so in Astoria, where passenger counts average less than a quarter of full capacity. One plane holds nine passengers.
SeaPort Airlines serves the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, and southern states such as Tennessee, Arkansas, Kansas, and Missouri. The company has been experimenting to see what works in Clatsop County. They've made some changes lately that officials hope will bring profitability within reach.
One change has been to suspend a recently added early morning departure from Astoria to Portland and a corresponding late departure from Portland. Officials tried the plan for four months but it did not result in more ticket sales for the 35 minute flight.
In addition to restoring its previous schedule, the airline is replacing its former Pilatus PC12 planes with Cessna Caravans - a plane widely used by Federal Express for air transport.
Rob McKinney is SeaPort's new president. McKinney has been with the company since it began in 2007 He was the airline's first employee.
McKinney, who lives in Vancouver, Wash., is a veteran pilot, and once made his living flying tourists over volcanoes in Hawaii. He worked his way up in SeaPort to be chief operating officer and was promoted to the president's chair in February.
He said one of his goals is to make flying more enjoyable for SeaPort passengers.
"SeaPort was doing an OK job with customer service [before]," he said. "But we can always do better."
One of his first moves was to create two customer service manager positions within the company, one in Memphis and one in Portland. He hopes to grow SeaPort Airlines to become a national brand, and pass the benefits of those economies of scale along to customers in the form of lower fares.
Locally, McKinney is very aware that the clock is ticking on SeaPort's options in Astoria.
"My goal is to get Astoria to the point where fares sustain it, and we are able to provide air service indefinitely," he said.
McKinney said that commitment has called for the new strategies that customers will see in the form of different aircraft and adjusted schedules.
"We need to allocate resources at lower cost," McKinney said. "So we're going to provide an aircraft with the same basic capabilities, but with a little less luxury."
McKinney said Astoria could see lower fares for trips to Portland as well, as a way of enticing passengers to try out the air service. Fares previously have run between $49 and $149 for one-way flights to Portland.
McKinney said he's committed to keeping Astoria as part of a regional air service that is expanding. The company has 155 employees now and is "growing all the time."
"It's a privilege to serve the Oregon Coast," he said. "I'm proud of the job SeaPort is doing."
The company recently added the option of e-ticketing through online travel service Expedia. Current SeaPort Air schedules are available at www.seaportair.com.