Seaport is adding service between Portland and Salem, and expanding its business outside of Oregon.
Seaport Airlines president Rob McKinney has a lot to think about these days.
In spite of the recent cancellation of Seaport’s mostly empty daily flights between Portland and Astoria, the Portland-based airline is growing rapidly — mostly outside of Oregon. It has expanded from two states to seven in two and a half years, with 115 daily flights, and recently announced plans to begin twice-daily service between Portland and Salem. The business employs about 200 people nationally including 65 pilots who specialize in short flights that avoid the hassle of Transportation Security Administration screening.
But much of Seaport’s growth has come from subsidies that belt-tightening politicians may choose to end given widespread concerns about government spending. Seaport flies subsidized “essential air services” routes to small towns in Tennessee, Arkansas and Missouri and is on the verge of moving into Texas as well. McKinney says he “couldn’t imagine them ending [essential air service subsidies] tomorrow,” but he acknowledges that “any federal program is in jeopardy” in the current political climate.
Seaport flies just one essential air service flight in Oregon, to Pendleton. The company’s Astoria and Newport flights were supported by a two-year state subsidy from ConnectOregon that ran out in March. Passenger counts justified continuing the service in Newport, but not in Astoria. McKinney says canceling the Astoria service was “emotionally hard for us as an Oregon company,” but “not financially devastating.” The move resulted in five layoffs.
Given that backdrop, Seaport is moving to diversify again. The company was formed in June 2008 with backing from Oregon angel investors to provide quick and easy business flights between Portland and Seattle. But a steep drop in travel budgets during the recession forced the company to shift into subsidized rural service.
Now that governments are cutting back, the airline is considering adding new flights that do not rely on subsidies, including possible moves into larger urban markets such as Dallas, Phoenix and San Diego.
McKinney says the daily flights between Portland and Salem would be TSA-free and unsubsidized, similar to Seaport’s flights in Alaska and between Portland and Seattle. The flights would restore commercial service to an airport currently used only for general aviation and the Oregon Air National Guard.