City News, ECONOMY

Business leaders urge faster timeline on airport improvements to allow flights in 2023

Salem business groups are urging city councilors to speed up the timeline for getting the city’s airport ready for commercial air service, saying carriers can’t wait over 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 jets remain without a funding source.

During public testimony Monday, Angie Onyewuchi, president of Travel Salem, said a representative for the city’s “number one airline prospect” visited McNary Field Aug. 12 and said they intend to begin serving 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 Salem Reporter they’re bound by a confidentiality agreement with the airline.

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

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

“As rapidly growing businesses these airlines do not have the time to wait one to two years when they have planes that are ready to operate now,” Onyewuchi told councilors.

Hoffert also urged 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 outlined other steps Fly Salem – the group of business and community leaders pushing for commercial air service – has taken to expedite an airline coming to the city. Those include discussing airport improvements with a local firm that could 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 landed a $850,000 federal grant to kickstart airline service by offering minimum revenue guarantees to airlines who establish routes here.

But city staff in a report this summer also identified millions of dollars in needed upgrades to the terminal to get the airport flight-ready, as well as ongoing staffing costs for security, police and fire needed to maintain air service. Currently, the city hasn’t identified a way to pay for those services or a timeline for needed upgrades.

City officials and those pushing for commercial air service said the recent bankruptcy declaration by the parent company of budget airline Aha! won’t impact plans for the airport. 

Aha! was one 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 ceased 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 utilize Salem Airport in 2023 and beyond will continue to stimulate interest from additional carriers as more flights are added into and from SLE,” Hoffert said in an email to Salem Reporter. “In short, the loss of Aha is not a catastrophic blow to the recruitment effort, as Salem continues to climb the interest boards for a number of low-cost and traditional air carriers.”

City officials are still preparing to report to the city council about next steps.

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

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

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.