Critics want these subsidized flights to this eastern Oregon town canceled

Critics want these subsidized flights to this eastern Oregon town canceled »Play Video
A passenger boards a SeaPort Airlines flight from Portland to Pendleton. The flights usually carry few passengers.

PORTLAND, Ore. – A daily flight from Portland International Airport to an eastern Oregon town has critics calling for its immediate landing.

That flight is aboard SeaPort Airlines. It uses a nine passenger single engine Cessna to fly passengers from Portland to Pendleton and back again. The flight takes 1 hour 20 minutes. Driving there would take about 3 hours 30 minutes.

On a recent morning, passenger Nick Derienzo made the flight on a business trip. He’s a regular flyer on the route. Does he think it’s essential?

“No, not necessarily,” he said. “If you have an appointment in the morning, it helps you get out of here a couple hours earlier.”

But the federal government thinks that the flight is vital. In fact, it’s part of a federal subsidy called Essential Air Service. Every time the plane lands or takes off from Pendleton, SeaPort Airlines gets $849 from the feds. The plane will make 2,162 flights for a total subsidy of more than $1.8 million.

The government subsidy makes the flight a lot cheaper. When you book a ticket online, you can find seats for as low as $57 one way. At that price, you’d think these planes would be booked. But passengers said that’s usually not the case.

“There was one time – probably a couple months ago – where I was the only one on in the morning,” said Derienzo. “It was kind of nice to have the whole plane to yourself.”

“Yes, we lose money on an empty airplane,” said Tim Sieber, executive vice president of SeaPort Airlines. “For our convenience, if we have an empty airplane going there, we don’t cancel that flight because we may have two, we may have nine people waiting at the other who want to come back.”

SeaPort is a small airliner serving rural communities all over the country. Many of its routes are paid for by the Essential Air Service program.

The federal government spends over $200 million a year on Essential Air Service. You pay for it through taxes when you buy a seat on a commercial airliner.

“There is this perception that EAS is easy money,” said Sieber. “It’s not easy money. We work hard just like any other airline does to get people on the airplanes and to drive those numbers up.”

“We think Essential Air Service should be eliminated as a subsidy,” said Ryan Alexander, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Critics of the program say the subsidy was only supposed to be a 10-year temporary fix after the airlines were deregulated in 1978. Federal government watchdogs and Taxpayers for Common Sense believe the program has been kept alive by key lawmakers in Washington.

“There’s just a tradition of powerful rural senators,” said Alexander. “I think if you added up the number of people who use the Essential Air Service, they aren’t enough to swing any election. But I think it’s one of those concrete things where people think this is an institution in my community that employs people, and I’m afraid it won’t be there anymore.”

But it’s not just the feds picking up the tab on rural flights – cities have plenty of giveaways too. In 2011, the city of Salem signed a six-month deal with SeaPort, letting it use the airport free of charge.

It didn’t go so well. In the three months that it operated at the airport, it averaged just two passengers per flight from Salem.

SeaPort and other airlines like them have contracts with the feds that don’t expire until 2017. So don’t expect the ride to end anytime soon.

“I have no doubt it’s more convenient, but it’s a real question of what is critical for the country, and we think it’s not,” said Alexander.

So the next time you look to the skies and see a small plane with the word “SeaPort” on the side and a low passenger count, remember you’re helping to keep it aloft, because you paid for it.

Email your story ideas directly to Steve Dunn at steved@katu.com.