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City of Salem says airline service could return by next summer

SalemAirport_CL.jpg
Chris Lehman
/
KLCC
The Salem Airport terminal has not seen regular passenger service since 2011.

After more than a decade without passenger service, airline flights to Oregon’s capital city could resume by next summer.

City officials say two carriers have expressed interest in starting service to several destinations in the southwest United States. But in order for those to begin, the Salem Airport terminal needs some upgrades since the new flights would be on larger planes than those that previously served Salem.

“There’s a little bit of a push and a pull there on which way the city wants to go, how much money it wants to invest in its infrastructure, into the terminal primarily but also the parking facilities, without knowing if air service is going to be sustainable here,” airport manager John Paskell told the Oregon Aviation Board Thursday. "We hope that it will be. We think that it will be. But of course there's a big, at-risk investment for the city."

Paskell said airport officials will go before the Salem City Council in January to outline the case for city funding to advance the upgrades. He said the airport also needs to update its security plans and to purchase equipment to service the aircraft. Funding for some of those purchases has already been approved in the form of a $540,000 grant from the Aviation Board.

A business group in Salem has also been raising funds to support the efforts to attract new airline service. The leader of the group, Brent DeHart, wrote in testimony submitted to the Aviation Board that the group has concerns about whether the city will be ready in time for service to begin by the summer.

At least one of the airlines, wrote DeHart, "has indicated that if it can't start (Salem) service by June 1, then they will assign their available aircraft to another market."

DeHart said his group's conversations with potential airlines have led them to believe service would initially be twice a week to Las Vegas and the "Los Angeles basin," with future service expanding to Phoenix and the "San Francisco Bay area." The potential airlines have not been named publicly, but the service patterns are typical of carriers that cater to leisure travelers, such as Allegiant or Avelo Airlines, rather than mainline carriers such as Alaska or United.

While Salem's airport is used by general aviation aircraft, it has not had commercial flights since 2011. That's when a small carrier known as SeaPort Airlines briefly included the city as a stop on its flights from Newport, OR to Portland. The service ended abruptly after a few months, and the airline later filed for bankruptcy and ceased operations.

The last full-service carrier to fly to Salem was Delta Air Lines, which offered multiple flights a day from Salem to its hub in Salt Lake City. That service last just over a year, ending in 2008.

State aviation officials appeared supportive of the City of Salem's efforts.

"I can't understand why we have a state capital without commercial service," said Martha Meeker, chair of the Aviation Board. She the resumption of flights to Salem is "desperately needed."

While most state capitals do have airline service, the list of those that don't includes two capitals of states bordering Oregon: Carson City, NV and Olympia, WA. In both cases, however, the capitals are located closer to larger cities with airline service than Salem.

Paskell said for its part, the City of Salem—despite the funding questions—is determined to have its airport ready in time for service to being, potentially as soon as May.

"That's the target," he said. "And we're pulling all the stops out that we can to try and meet that date."

Chris Lehman has been reporting on Oregon issues since 2006. He joined the KLCC news department in December, 2018. Chris was born and raised in Pennsylvania, and graduated from Temple University with a degree in journalism. His public broadcasting career includes stops in Louisiana and Illinois. Chris has filed for national programs including “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered.”
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