Salem businesses in pursuit of commercial airliner

A private plane sits outside of Salem Aviation Fueling in Salem, owned by Brent DeHart. DeHart and other business leaders are hoping to garner private pledges to bring commercial air service back to the city. (Troy Brynelson/Salem Reporter)

It’s not the 6:30 a.m. flight that frustrates Shane Saunders, but everything leading up to it.

“Typically I have to leave Salem about 3 or 3:30 in the morning, get there, park my car, pay for parking over several days,” he said, noting the trip is one he makes a handful of times every year. “It adds significantly to the costs and to the hassle.”

The 51-year-old is the chief experience officer at Maps Community Credit Union, working to make its business easier for customers and employees alike. The credit union’s latest move is to pledge $25,000 toward resurrecting commercial airline service at Salem Municipal Airport.

Doing so, according to Saunders, would cut costs on all the traveling Maps’ executives do, while giving everyone else in the Mid-Willamette Valley a choice to fly without driving hours ahead of boarding to Portland or Eugene or potentially renting a hotel room the night before.

“With us it’s sort of simple. We ask ourselves if there is a benefit to the community as a whole,” he said. “We see the airport as a significant contributor to the quality of life.”

A contingent of business leaders for months now have been working to bring back passenger service to the airport, but frustration over the loss of Delta Air Lines a decade ago has made Salem’s elected officials reluctant to get involved.

That contingent now says businesses have pledged so far $500,000 toward a bigger goal of $1 million to attract another airliner that could fly to Seattle, San Francisco or Denver.

“It’s a complete cross-section of companies and individuals that are in everything from financial institutions to the medical community to manufacturing and honestly even the nonprofit world,” said Curt Arthur, a real estate broker and one of the business owners.

Organizers did not disclose a roster of pledgers to Salem Reporter, but among them are NORPAC, Capital Auto Group, Roth’s Fresh Markets and the Salem accounting firm Doty Pruett Wilson. The amounts they pledged were not disclosed.

“The congestion they view is bad and getting worse,” said Brent DeHart, another leader of the contingent. “For a number of reasons, we just think our capital city should have commercial service.”

DeHart owns Salem Aviation Fueling, which pledged $25,000. He said people are tired of being stuck between Eugene and Portland.

The 57-year-old is a former Salem city councilor and a former president of the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce who stands to benefit if an airliner lands in Salem. More planes coming through need more fuel and repairs, which he supplies.

But DeHart said his is the only business that stands to gain immediately. He said other pledgers support an airliner because flying in vendors or clients, or getting to conferences, is better for business.

Brent DeHart, owner of Salem Aviation Fueling, who is leading the charge to bring flights back to Salem Municipal Airport. DeHart, 57, is also a former city councilor and past president of the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce. (Troy Brynelson/Salem Reporter)

“I love PDX. Don’t get me wrong,” he said, referring to Portland International Airport. “I just don’t like getting there.”

Still, there appears to be a lot of distance between here and getting an airliner to Salem. The city owns and manages the airport and to this point hasn’t been involved in the effort.

Private pledges alone won’t cover the full costs of recruiting an airliner. Volaire Aviation Consultants, commissioned by the group, say airliners need a pool of money to tap into for up to two years to recoup early losses.

If the group gets $1 million in pledges, it still hopes to get an extra $750,000 for that pool. The group also hopes to raise $250,000 for more consulting and a marketing budget. The final goal would be $2 million total.

A pair of grants, from the Oregon Department of Aviation and the U.S. Department of Transportation, could kick in those additional funds, DeHart said. The latter grant, however, requires the city to be the applicant.

But some city officials tell Salem Reporter that there is worry that any city involvement could somehow wind up costing public dollars.

“The city just doesn’t want to get into the financing or spend money on commercial air service at this point — or, well, ever, I don’t think,” said Mayor Chuck Bennett.

Councilors Cara Kaser and Tom Andersen said they don’t object to commercial air service as a concept, but both pumped the brakes if it required city money.

 “At this point, I’m willing to support the effort through a letter of support from the city, but not invest city funds directly in trying to attract a carrier,” Kaser said in an email.

Andersen worried the city could get caught with costs down the line.

“It’s oftentimes the case with city government and other governments where you get asked to do something and then all of a sudden you’re stuck with it,” he said.

Seats at Salem Municipal Airport. City officials said the experience of Delta Air Lines leaving after 17 months has made them cautious to try and bring air service back. (Troy Brynelson/Salem Reporter)

Their concerns are rooted in Salem’s recent break-up with air service.

After the city spent $1.1 million in 2006 to improve its airport terminal, Delta Air Lines arrived in 2007. But, 17 months later, the Atlanta-based airliner shut down its Salem service.

According to a recent study conducted by Volaire, Delta left because the recession diminished travel demands and tripled the cost of jet fuel.

But that was then, the business leaders said.

“This is not like the old days,” Arthur said.

Both men said the demand in the region for an airline has only made Salem a better fit. More people have moved to the region and traffic has worsened proportionately, they said.

The commissioned study also said a carrier could be enticed to fly from Salem to San Francisco, Seattle or Denver. Ticket prices have not been estimated but would be more expensive than flying from Portland or Seattle. The group said it hasn’t directly approached any airliners yet in any negotiations.

“With a market of our size, having an airport would be a benefit to overall community and in terms of the business standpoint there’s a lot of us that fly to sales trips or conventions or wherever we’re going,” Arthur said. “And just the human capital of having an employee going back and forth on the road from Portland for a flight… it’s a no-brainer to have those companies try to back air service here.”

DeHart added that they do not want public dollars. The private pledges and grants would cover the costs an airline demands.

“We’re trying to accomplish this without competing for municipal funds or putting the city at all at risk,” DeHart said.

Airport Manager John Paskell walks in the security checkpoint at Salem Municipal Airport. Without commercial air service, the area is mostly used as a meeting space and storage for a nearby restaurant. (Troy Brynelson/Salem Reporter)

A decade ago, Delta also required a fund. The community prepaid for airline tickets with the same idea of helping the airline recover losses as it started in Salem.

DeHart expects this time to be different. Rather than prepaying tickets, he said pledgers can get some or all of their money back after two years – depending on much the pool is tapped. He acknowledged there’s a risk.

“The (pool), well, is potentially a risk to people who are putting in. If the revenue targets aren’t hit, the money will go to the airline,” DeHart said. “They know that it will be a risk and they have an expectation that it will come back — because we think it will be wildly successful.”

“The mechanism is brilliant because all throughout the community, people who have put their money at risk will be saying ‘You’re flying from Salem right?’” he added. “Their organizations will book flights out of Salem. Their friends and employees. There’s a lot of built-in cheerleading to make this a success because there will be a lot of us with money at stake.”

It’s an approach that some businesses, agencies and city staff support.

Last week, the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce agreed to be the fiduciary of the grant from the Oregon Department of Aviation. As fiduciary, it will monitor how funds are spent and give quarterly updates, said DeHart.

The federal grant does not yet have a fiduciary in place, according to DeHart.

Travel Salem, the Marion County Board of Commissioners, Garmin, the Oregon Wine Board, Corban University and the Salem Area Lodging Association are among those who have written letters of support in the last two months.

Kristin Retherford, director of Salem’s Urban Development Department, said in an email the department is “very supportive of commercial air service,” and that a staff report could go before city council in November to support the grant application idea.

Airport Manager John Paskell supports it as well. His office is a hallway away from the vestiges of airport service — unused airport seats, closed baggage claim, and a security checkpoint that is now used as storage for a nearby restaurant.

Paskell gets calls regularly from people asking if Salem has passenger flights.

“We tell them your best bet is Portland or Eugene, and it’s hard to send that business away,” he said. But, he acknowledges that changing that is a ways away.

“I think the reality is that it’s a long, hard slog to land an airline,” he said.

Have a tip? Contact reporter Troy Brynelson at 503-575-9930, [email protected] or @TroyWB.

Airport Manager John Paskell said he is supportive of bringing back commercial air line service, but he recognizes it would be a ‘long, hard slog’ to make it happen. (Troy Brynelson/Salem Reporter)