Oregon senators urge support for rural air service

Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley are going to bat for rural air service, citing the Eastern Oregon Regional Airport in Pendleton as one facility that benefits strongly from the program.

In his budget proposal, President Donald Trump has called for eliminating the Essential Air Service, part of a 13 percent decrease in the U.S. Department of Transportation budget. The program provides federal subsidies to guarantee small communities maintain a minimum level of scheduled air service.

Eastern Oregon Regional Airport is the only EAS airport in Oregon, with the subsidy paying for daily flights to Portland. Wyden and Merkley, both Democrats, wrote a letter Wednesday to Elaine Chao, secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation, and Michael Huerta, administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, urging them to support an adequate budget for EAS.

“Without this service, Eastern Oregon lacks any commercial air service, putting these communities at a serious competitive disadvantage when working to attract or retain business,” the senators wrote. “Air service is also a safety and health care concern. Many rural seniors travel for specialty health care, and the flights to Portland create opportunity for them to remain in their homes and communities and still access the care they need.”

Pendleton is one of 113 rural communities across the country that receive a EAS subsidy to provide flights to and from a “hub” airport in a larger city, according to a previous East Oregonian report. The Department of Transportation is paying Boutique Airlines $2.3 million to operate flights between Pendleton and Portland through 2018.

“The airport has been quite responsive, and in recent months contracted with a new provider to improve enplanements and ensure that federal investments are well spent,” the senators wrote.

Wyden and Merkley also pointed to the Contract Tower Program as a crucial investment. In addition to commercial air service, the senators wrote that the program has supported the creation of the Pendleton Unmanned Aerial Systems Range, part of the UAS Pan-Pacific Test Range.

The Contract Tower program has averaged around 10,000 operations per year in Pendleton, but is forecast to see around 50,000 operations because of the increased traffic due to drone tests, according to the senators. That includes the ArcticShark, an $800,000 system owned by the Department of Energy that will eventually gather climate data over the Arctic coast of Alaska.

Drones may also provide future uses in application, business, package delivery and search and rescue, say Wyden and Merkley.

“The state of Oregon has invested in airport infrastructure, and the airport is beginning to forecast significant revenues, not only for the airport and test range but also for the city, which is hosting UAS companies and events,” they write.

Greg Walden, Oregon’s lone Republican congressman, also represents Pendleton’s district in Washington, D.C. In an email Thursday to the East Oregonian, Walden’s spokesman, Andrew Malcolm, said they have worked many years to preserve commercial air service in Pendleton.

“(Walden) will continue to work closely with the Trump administration and his colleagues in the House to preserve this important economic link for northeast Oregon,” Malcolm said.