Business leaders push for faster deadline for airport upgrades to allow flights in 2023

Salem business groups are calling on city councilors to speed up the timeline for getting the city’s airport ready for commercial air service, saying carriers can’t wait more than a year to begin operations.

City councilors on Monday approved using a $540,000 state grant to buy needed ground equipment for the airport, but other staffing increases and terminal improvements needed to serve passenger planes remain without a funding source.

During public testimony Monday, Angie Onyewuchi, president of Travel Salem, said a representative of the city’s “number one airline prospect” visited McNary Field on Aug. 12 and said they aim to begin service to Salem by March 2023. adding additional destinations in May.

Onyewuchi and Tom Hoffert, CEO of the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce, did not name the airline during the meeting. Hoffert told the Salem Reporter that they are bound by a confidentiality agreement with the airline.

Onyewuchi told the council the service would mean twice-weekly flights to the Los Angeles and Las Vegas area from Salem.

Onyewuchi said the city should focus on spending as little money as possible to get the service up and running. She said the airline representative told her the existing terminal facility meets their needs for operations, meaning the city would only need to make improvements required by the Federal Transportation Security Administration for passenger screening. .

“As fast-growing businesses, these airlines don’t have time to wait one to two years to have planes that are ready to operate now,” Onyewuchi told advisers.

Hoffert also asked city councilors to consider allowing the airport to suspend payments to the city’s general fund and use the extra money to hire additional staff needed for operations. He described other steps that Fly Salem — the group of business and community leaders pushing for commercial airline service — has taken to expedite the arrival of an airline to the city. They include discussing airport improvements with a local firm that can quickly complete renovations, he said, and meeting with staff from Oregon Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden about expediting federal approvals needed to begin service.

After two unsuccessful attempts, Salem recently received an $850,000 federal grant to launch airline service offering minimum revenue guarantees to airlines that establish routes here.

But city staff in a report this summer also identified millions of dollars in terminal improvements needed to make the airport flight-ready, as well as ongoing security, police and fire personnel costs needed to maintain air service. Currently, the city has not identified a way to pay for these services or a timeline for the necessary improvements.

City officials and those pushing for commercial airline service said the recent bankruptcy filing by the parent company of budget airline Aha! it will not affect plans for the airport.

Aha! was a carrier that had expressed an interest in serving Salem with flights to Reno, Nevada, Interim City Manager Kristen Retherford previously told the council.

On Tuesday, Aha!’s parent company, ExpressJet, filed for bankruptcy protection and shut down all Aha! flights, the Associated Press reported.

Another airline, Houston-based budget carrier Avelo, has signed a letter of support saying they intend to serve Salem.

“We remain very optimistic that the two airlines still taking steps to operate Salem Airport in 2023 and beyond will continue to stimulate interest from additional carriers as more flights are added to and from SLE,” Hoffert said in an email to Salem Reporter. “In short, the loss of Aha is not a catastrophic blow to recruiting efforts, as Salem continues to climb interest boards for a number of low-cost and traditional carriers.”

City officials are still preparing to report back to city council on next steps.

“Aha’s bankruptcy filing does not change our intent to respond to the City Council on terminal and parking expansion costs, potential funding sources and a realistic timeline for funding and construction of these improvements,” Courtney Knox Busch said. , the city’s manager of strategic initiatives, in an email to the Salem Reporter.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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