Salem’s plans for commercial air travel next year depend on the federal grant

Los Angeles and Las Vegas are likely destinations for budget airlines interested in flying from Salem Municipal Airport, according to Salem City records. Fly Salem leaders expect an initial airline to set up shop next year.

A plane on the tarmac at Salem Municipal Airport on Thursday, May 5, 2022 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Salem could see commercial flights return to its airport within a year — if the city succeeds in its third attempt at getting a federal grant to help market the service and ensure the carrier’s revenue.

Initial flights are likely to be the best destinations currently best for Salem travelers traveling: Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix and San Francisco, according to a city grant application submitted to the U.S. Department of Transportation submitted in April.

Document: Salem City Air Travel Grant Application

Brent Dehart, owner of Salem Air Vueling, said he expects the low-cost airline to set up shop at Salem’s domestic airport this year, with a second low-cost airline following shortly after.

DeHart is a flagship of a group of local and resident business owners called Fly Salem who have been seeking to bring passenger service back to Salem since 2017.

They initially sought out a major commercial airline, such as Alaska or Delta, but changed their goals due to epidemiological shifts in the air travel market. Now, they are looking for airlines like Allegiant or Frontier or low-cost airlines like Breeze or Avelo.

“They’re all in a market that needs low operating costs,” DeHart said last week during a Q&A with Jacob Espinosa of the Salem Chamber.

It can deliver much less than Portland International Airport, Salem said.

Brent Dehart, left, commander of Fly Salem, discusses the future of commercial air service with Jacob Espinosa of the Salem Chamber of Commerce on Thursday, May 5, 2022 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

The airport is owned by the city, but covers the costs of its operations through rents and fees, and does not take money from the city’s general fund.

About 45,000 flights take off and land at the airport each year, according to the city’s proposed 2022-23 budget, with flights for private travel, military, agricultural, scientific and survey purposes.

In April, Salem City Manager Christine Richerford applied to the US Department of Transportation for an $850,000 grant from the Small Community Air Services Development Program.

In 2019, the Greater Salem area generated about 1.2 million flights annually, or 1,586 passengers per day, according to the app. Most of them fly from Portland.

To be successful, Air Service out of Salem would need to take only 6% of that demand, the application says.

The bulk of the money, $800,000, will be put into a fund to help ensure the carrier’s minimum revenue stream for the first two years of operations. It’s a hedge in case the Salemites don’t buy enough tickets to conduct pencil operations.

The request said the city would also waive landing fees and airport fees for two years to attract an airline, although such a waiver would require approval by Salem City Council.

The federal funds will be added to a pool of $350,000 that local businesses have contributed. Airlines can seek money from this pool if their flights are less full than expected. He said DeHart has personally put in $25,000.

“Honestly, I expect all my money back,” Diehart said. “That’s how much I believe.”

The remaining $50,000 from the federal grant will be used to market the new flights.

Salem’s last commercial air service was from Delta, which began flights in 2007 and exited the airport a year and a half later. DeHart said this was a uniquely bad period for airlines, which saw fuel prices skyrocket as the Great Recession hit and Americans drastically cut travel and other expenses.

In return, he said, Americans are now eager to travel. As airlines struggle with pilot shortages and rising fuel prices, he said many budget carriers are looking to expand services as major airlines scale back.

“It’s bigger than any other market you could open,” he said of Salem.

Salem unsuccessfully applied for a similar grant in 2019 and 2021. DeHart said he is more optimistic this time because the city has messages of support from two airlines, something that previous rounds have lacked. He declined to name the airlines or mention which of them he wanted until the deals were completed.

City spokeswoman Courtney Knox Bush said the city could know if it funded in June, although the federal schedule may change.

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

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