With interest from low-cost airlines, optimism grows about commercial service at Salem Airport

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

Brent DeHart believes the Salem Municipal Airport is close to having commercial air service.

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

He said there have been a series of variables aligning make the timing right: interest from cheaper airlines and pandemic shifts in airline travel.

DeHart said airlines called ultra-low cost carriers, like Allegiant, Frontier, Jet Blue and Spirit, are looking for secondary airports that are less expensive to fly out of.

He said some of those carriers have come forward in the last year to express interest in Salem.

“We do believe the first carrier to come to Salem will be (an ultra-low cost carrier), possibly as early as next summer,” he said.

Initially, Fly Salem’s goal was to get a major carrier into the area, like Alaska or United.

He said the low-cost carriers will help them get to that goal 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 left 17 months later because of economic conditions.

DeHart said Fly Salem is planning to apply for a third time to a federal grant for Small Community Air Service Development. The two previous applications in 2019 and this year were unsuccessful.

He said the last two grant cycles the Southwest Oregon Regional Airport in North Bend and Redmond Airport were successful in getting the grants, so there’s less Oregon competition this time around.

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

The application is requesting $850,000 with $50,000 for marketing and the rest used to mitigate risk to attract airlines to the area.

Prior to the pandemic, DeHart said Fly Salem gathered $700,000 in local pledges from businesses like Capital Auto Group, Roth’s Fresh Markets and the Salem 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 pledges on pause, because they didn’t know what would happen with the market.

“Now it’s time to go back to those pledges and say, ‘This is where we are, are you still in?’,” he said.

The money is used to help offset airline costs for up to two years if they’re not able to fill seats.

But private money isn’t enough, which is why Fly Salem is going after the federal grant.

In 2019, the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce, which is involved in the effort, got a $500,000 grant through the state Department of Aviation to help pay for a consultant and a marketing plan if the airport got service.

During the pandemic, Dehart said the Portland International Airport lost 21 nonstop flights which makes the Mid-Willamette Valley more competitive for service.

“Ironically the pandemic opened a couple opportunities and advantages we didn’t have before,” he said.

John Paskell, airport manager, said Salem is now on the radar of airliners looking for cheaper markets.

“We’re actually talking to some airlines now about the potential to start service. In the first three years we didn’t have any of that,” he said.

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

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

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

The Salem Area Chamber of Commerce is holding a public policy meeting focused on the airport on Thursday at 7 a.m. The meeting can be viewed on YouTube.

Clarification: This article previously included a link to register for a chamber meeting. Those meetings are closed to the public.

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

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