With interest from budget airlines, optimism grows for commercial service at Salem airport

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The Salem Area Chamber of Commerce is hosting a public policy meeting on the airport and sales department Thursday morning. Airport boosters initially hoped to attract a major airline like Alaska, but say they’ve instead attracted interest from low-cost carriers like Allegiant or Frontier.

Empty seats at Salem Municipal Airport. (Troy Brynelson / reporter Salem)

Brent DeHart believes Salem Municipal Airport is about to have commercial air service.

DeHart is a leader of a contingent of business owners and local residents called Fly Salem who have been looking to restore passenger service to Salem since 2017 to fly to major West Coast hubs. He is also the owner of Salem Aviation Fueling.

He said there had been a series of variables lined up to make the timing right: interest from cheaper airlines and pandemic changes in air travel.

DeHart said airlines called super low cost carriers, such as Allegiant, Frontier, Jet Blue and Spirit, are looking for cheaper secondary airports.

He said some of those carriers came forward last year to express interest in Salem.

“We think the first carrier to come to Salem will be (a very low cost carrier), maybe as early as next summer,” he said.

Initially, Fly Salem’s goal was to bring a major carrier to the region, like Alaska or United.

He said low-cost carriers would help them achieve this by filling seats and showing the viability of the market.

The last commercial airliner to operate at the airport was Delta Air Lines, which opened in 2007 and departed 17 months later due to economic conditions.

DeHart said Fly Salem plans to apply for the third time for a federal small community air service development grant. The previous two applications in 2019 and this year were unsuccessful.

He said the last two rounds of grants, the Southwestern Oregon Regional Airport at North Bend and the Redmond Airport, were successful in securing the grants, so there is less competition in the Oregon this time around.

Volaire Aviation Consultants, commissioned by the group, will prepare the grant, but the City of Salem must submit it because it owns and operates the airport.

The request asks for $ 850,000, of which $ 50,000 is for marketing and the remainder used to mitigate risk in order to attract airlines to the area.

Before the pandemic, DeHart said Fly Salem raised $ 700,000 in local pledges from companies like Capital Auto Group, Roth’s Fresh Markets and Salem’s accounting firm Doty Pruett Wilson for an airliner that could fly to Seattle. , San Francisco or Denver.

He said during the pandemic they put those commitments on hold because they didn’t know what was going to happen with the market.

“Now it’s time to go back to those promises and say, ‘Here’s where we’re at, are you still in it? ” “, did he declare.

The money is used to help offset the costs of airlines for up to two years if they are unable to fill the seats.

But private money is not enough, which is why Fly Salem is seeking the federal grant.

In 2019, the Salem Region Chamber of Commerce, which is participating in the effort, secured a $ 500,000 grant from the state’s aviation department to help pay for a consultant and a marketing plan if the airport was in operation.

During the pandemic, Dehart said Portland International Airport lost 21 non-stop flights, making the Mid-Willamette Valley more competitive for service.

“Ironically, the pandemic has opened up a few opportunities and benefits that we didn’t have before,” he said.

Airport manager John Paskell said Salem was now on the radar of airliners looking for cheaper deals.

“We are currently discussing with some airlines the possibility of starting the service. In the first three years we had none of that, ”he said.

He said the airport currently serves a combination of local pilots, flight training and military operations, with 150 planes based outside the airport.

“It’s an eclectic mix of military and general aviation,” he said.

He said the city is involved on the outskirts and the effort to restore service has been community based.

The Salem Area Chamber of Commerce is hosting an airport-focused public policy meeting on Thursday at 7 a.m. Register here.

Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected]

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