Getting ready for takeoff: Salem Municipal Airport is five months away from offering passenger flights
The Fly Salem Steering Committee, dedicated to restoring air service in Salem, Ore., has invested five years in overcoming challenges and delays to fulfill its mission. The initiative has made substantial progress in the last year through collaborative efforts between Fly Salem, the City, and TSA, securing an airline commitment and revising the passenger flight timeline to October 2023. With just five months remaining, flights from Salem to the Hollywood Burbank and Las Vegas airports are on the horizon.
Salem City Manager Keith Stahley announced at the April 10, 2023, City Council meeting that an Air Carrier Operating Agreement and other legal documents have been approved and signed by the undisclosed ultra-low-cost carrier (ULCC) airline now committed to Salem.
“It is a momentous step forward for our community that involved incredible staff work. There was a tremendous amount of back and forth and technical work involved,” said Stahley. “We will not be done until the plane touches down here and takes off.”
Fly Salem Chair Brent DeHart said the Committee thought it would be easy to recruit an airline when they started in 2018. But the Committee members had to fasten their seatbelts for a bumpy ride.
The setbacks included a plane shortage due to the 737 MAX planes being grounded in 2019, an ongoing pilot shortage due to baby boomer retirements, and the 2022 war in Ukraine, which caused uncertainty and fuel price escalation. And then there was this little thing in 2020 called the pandemic – the most disruptive thing to aviation since the Wright brothers.
DeHart said there is much excitement over finally seeing their airline recruitment efforts pay off. “In the next 12 months for this ULCC, there are going to be affordable flight tickets under $100, possibly even $80 each way to the Los Angeles area,” said DeHart.
In October, DeHart anticipates Salem will have two to three flights to Hollywood Burbank and two per week to Las Vegas with 145-seat 737-700 plane service, expanding to Phoenix and the San Francisco Bay Area to serve four locations by summer 2024.
Now, the air service timeline is in the hands of the City of Salem, TSA, and the ULCC airline. The Fly Salem recruitment piece is done.
Under the leadership of Mayor Hoy and City Manager Stahley, the City approved up to 2.4 million to the Salem Airport in January 2023 for operational and capital costs, including staffing and renovation, of which 1.9 million is for terminal improvements that will allow TSA to screen baggage and people.
The ULCC airline will disclose its identity and set an official first flight date after the required terminal improvements are finished and the airport security plan is approved by TSA, including the hiring of a new airport security manager.
TSA approval may take between two weeks and a few months. But the City’s Public Information Office said the final security plan will be submitted by mid-June. Additionally, the terminal will be completed in the next few weeks, along with the arrival of new TSA screening equipment.
The final approval process will bring about a new beginning for tourism and business stakeholders like DeHart, owner of Salem Aviation Fuel, Angie Villery, president of Travel Salem, and Mark Bjornson, owner of Bjornson Vineyard, who have all been active Fly Salem fundraisers alongside other private donors.
In 2020, the Mid-Valley wine industry orchestrated a Fly Salem fundraiser, generating $50,000 alongside a matching grant. Additionally, private donors contributed $350,000 in matching funds, with individual contributions ranging from $1,000 to $40,000. An $850,000 federal government grant made the remaining recruitment endeavors feasible.
Bjornson believes commercial air service will positively impact the Salem area’s economy and quality of life. “It would enable Salem to be the gateway to one of the world’s great wine regions, the Willamette Valley,” Bjornson said. “Wine tourism would positively impact restaurants, lodging, agriculture, and the overall economy in Salem and the surrounding areas.”
“We’re not just cheerleaders; we’re businesspeople. We are convinced and motivated because the data from our Volaire Aviation leakage studies tell us it’s our time,” said DeHart.
According to these leakage studies, 650,000 people in the catchment area in and around Salem could benefit from changing their flying habits from Portland to Salem, which may be an easy choice for some due to the traffic, parking prices, and construction challenges.
But the five-month wait at the Salem Municipal Airport will be anything but quiet, continuing to be a 751-acre hub for all sorts of commerce already playing a significant role in economic impact.
“People may have the wrong perception thinking, ‘Oh, that’s just an airport for a bunch of guys that have their private planes, probably heading down to a winery in California,'” said DeHart. “You might have no idea that Life Flight took off three times while you were sleeping to save someone’s life or that over 500 Garmin employees design, test, engineer, and manufacture aviation products – right out of the Salem Airport. The National Guard, firefighters, and other local businesses are also doing incredible things.”
The Volaire Aviation studies indicate that only 10% of those 650,000 people must choose to fly Salem in October for this initiative to play a considerable role in the community’s economic growth and vitality, elevating the already robust Salem Airport happenings to another level.
“There is no initiative or project that will have a greater economic development impact in the Mid-Valley over the next ten years,” Dehart said. “Our vision for the future is to connect Salem one stop to the world.”