After a more than a decade hiatus, daily direct commercial passenger air service between the North Oregon Coast and Portland International Airport returns March 15.


SeaPort Airlines of Portland, a regional airline company, will provide three nonstop flights between Astoria Regional Airport in Warrenton and PDX seven days a week. SeaPort also offers continuing air service from Portland to Boeing Field in Seattle.


The local air service is being underwritten in part by a two-year, state-lottery funded Connect Oregon II grant and the federal government. The funding also provides for SeaPort to operate two daily flights between Newport and Portland.


Kent Craford, SeaPort CEO, said Astoria has been on his "radar screen" for sometime as a prime location to expand commuter air service.


"I've worked in Astoria and know the history of air service there," he told Coast River Business Journal. "With the rebirth of the Lower Columbia area as a tourist destination and the growing economic vitality of Astoria, we think the time is ripe" for the service.


SeaPort will operate a nine-seat Pilatus PC-12, a Swiss-built turbo-prop aircraft, for the Astoria-Portland run.


This is the first time since the mid-1990s that there has been commercial passenger air service between Astoria and Portland.




Benefits for tourists and businesses


The resumption of local air service culminates several years of efforts by local officials, who see the Astoria-Portland air service connection as vital to the continued growth of the area's tourism industry, as well as a direct benefit to local businesses.


Bruce Conner, co-owner of Sundial Travel & Cruise Center in Astoria, said it should open up a whole new market for potential tourists, by attracting more travelers flying into PDX.


"It certainly will help in advertising Astoria and the North Coast as a tourist destination," Conner said. "Travelers can fly into PDX and connect with SeaPort and be in Astoria in less than an hour."


Conner, who served on a task force that studied the viability of resuming local air service, said it also will be an advantage to business travelers and companies that ship cargo, as well as a strong selling point in attracting new companies to the area.


One of the local businesses that will immediately benefit is Lektro, Inc., a long-established Astoria-based manufacturer of aircraft towing vehicles,


Eric Paulson, Lektro's president, said he was among the early supporters of the effort to return local commercial air service.


"Most of our business is done outside of Clatsop County, and we do a lot of flying both across the country and abroad," Paulson told Coast River Business Journal. "This will be a great benefit to us. The coast is not the easiest place to drive to, especially in the winter."




Astoria's checkered past air service


Regular Astoria-Portland passenger air service has had a spotty history in recent years.


Historical records maintained by the Port of Astoria, the owner/operator of the Astoria Regional Airport, traces scheduled passenger service back to at least 1944, when United Airlines provided flights using a 25-30 seat DC-3 aircraft. West Coast Airlines later took over the route, but suspended local service in 1974.


According to the submitted Connect Oregon II grant application, it took 14 years before Empire Airlines returned regular service to Astoria in 1982. Horizon Air took over the service in 1994, operating a 19-seat Metroliner aircraft, according to Port records. Horizon ended its Astoria-Portland service in late 1995, after announcing plans to replace its fleet of Metroliners with larger capacity planes. Harbour Air took on the role shortly thereafter, but provided service for just two years. Astoria has remained without daily air service since the late 1990s.


Craford, SeaPort's CEO, told CRBJ that the fuel efficient, 9-seat Pilatus the airline uses should be ideal for the Astoria-Portland service. "It's efficient, comfortable and reliable. It's a state-of-the-art aircraft."




Airport prepares for service


In preparations for the arrival of SeaPort's new service, the Port of Astoria is upgrading the airport's terminal facilities, said John Overholser, airport manager. The estimated $40,000 cost for the upgrade is being paid with a portion of state/federal grant funds, he said.


Overholser described the terminal's remodeling work as "fairly significant".


Since SeaPort's planes will be based in Portland, aircraft maintenance will be performed at PDX. "They'll fly in here and turn around and fly out," Overholser said. "It will be a quick turnaround."


Overholser told CRBJ that the new service is expected to result in the hiring of two local ticket agents and one additional position to handle the increased activity at the airport.




No hassles with TSA inspections


Because there is no federal Transportation Security Administration (TSA) service at the Astoria airport, passengers flying out of the facility will not have their luggage inspected nor go through screening themselves, Craford noted. Those flying onto Seattle with SeaPort also won't need to go through the TSA inspection at PDX. Because Boeing Field is also not a TSA facility, passengers flying from Seattle to Astoria will avoid the time and hassle of going through TSA screening.


On some Astoria to Portland flights, the same plane will continue onto Seattle, so customers going the full journey avoid the need to change aircraft at PDX.




Grants subsidize cost of service


A combined $4.5 million in state/federal grant funds is being used to subsidize air service for Astoria and Newport over a two-year period. Of that amount, $3.5 million is being provided through the Connect Oregon II grant program.


The grant program guarantees SeaPort $781.74 for flights between Astoria and Portland. Revenues generated from ticket sales or freight charges are subtracted from the guarantee.


Craford said he hopes the addition of Astoria to his airline's list of territories ultimately will entice coastal residents to use SeaPort to fly onto Seattle or Pendleton.


He said he has been encouraged by the early interest the return of regular air service has generated locally. However, he added that "time will tell" how that translates into passenger bookings.


"The one X-factor is that there hasn't been scheduled air service to Astoria for some time," Craford said. "I'm not sure what to expect, but I'm fairly enthusiastic."






Quick facts




• What:


Daily commercial air service between Astoria Regional Airport in Warrenton and Portland International Airport.




• When:


Starting March 15, 2009.


Public Launch event at the Astoria Regional Airport that day. Event begins at 10 a.m.




• Fare:


Introductory fare of $49 one-way if booked by March 14, 2009.




• Who:


SeaPort Airlines of Portland.




• Aircraft:


9-seat Pilatus PC-12 turbo-prop.




• Schedule:


Astoria to PDX: 6:30 a.m., 10:25 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. PDX to Astoria: 5:40 a.m., 9:35 a.m. and 5:10 p.m.




• Ticket information:


www.seaportair.com or call toll-free 1-888-573-2767.


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