SeaPort Airlines will no longer have a port in Pendleton.
Following eight years as the city’s Essential Air Service provider, the Pendleton City Council unanimously voted to select a bid by Boutique Air of San Francisco over the incumbent Portland-based airline at a meeting Tuesday.
Boutique will provide 21 round-trip flights per week from Pendleton to Portland with an option to add an additional round trip, which could go to either Seattle or Boise, Idaho.
Boutique is requesting an annual $2.27 million EAS subsidy, which is paid for through the U.S. Department of Transportation. The company will be on a two-year contract.
Although several members of the council thanked SeaPort for its service and expressed remorse over the split, no one argued that the city should remain with its current airline.
“Boutique seems like it has a better track record,” Mayor Phillip Houk said. “It seems to me like it was an easy decision from everybody that’s acquainted with the facts. I feel bad for (SeaPort) as well as appreciate the time spent with us, but I think you have to do what’s right and best for the community.”
Boutique sold itself as a high-quality alternative, touting its reliability, customer service and the fleet of Pilatus PC-12s it uses to transport passengers.
Because the Pilatus is a faster plane with a sealed cabin, Boutique officials told the airport commission that they offered a quiet, smooth flying experience that could get passengers to Portland in about 45 minutes.
SeaPort operated the Pilatus when it first arrived in Pendleton, but switched to the Cessna Caravan several years ago, a plane that the airport commission agreed was a slower, rougher aircraft.
Chrisman vetted Boutique’s claims by talking with airport managers from EAS cities in California, Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and Alabama.
“There was a lot of consistency in their responses, almost to a man and woman.” he said. “They talked about the high-quality equipment and planes, how folks felt like they’re rock stars riding in these things. The on-time performance was another thing they keyed on.”
Chrisman said there were some complaints about the lack of an on-site manager and local phone number, but the feedback was mostly positive.
Two airport managers said their boardings are approaching the 10,000 mark, a threshold that automatically triggers a $1 million grant from the DOT.
Chrisman also shared a letter endorsing Boutique from the Round-Up Development Corp., an economic development organization that includes airport commissioner Mike Short and mayor-elect John Turner.
“Boutique has thrived in the same types of rural markets that has caused SeaPort to go bankrupt,” Short wrote. “Boutique’s growth in enplanements has been impressive while SeaPort has remained stagnant. Boutique does not have issues with pilot shortages while SeaPort is chronically short on pilots and SeaPort’s turnover of key personnel is worrisome.”
SeaPort wasn’t helped by a turbulent 2016 that saw the company drop a majority of its routes, file for bankruptcy, get hit with a civil penalty from the Federal Aviation Administration for flying planes that weren’t airworthy and produce so few boardings that the DOT is considering stripping Pendleton of its EAS subsidy.
The city has objected to the DOT’s ruling, and if that isn’t successful, Chrisman expects the department to issue a waiver.
Contact Antonio Sierra at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0836.