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Harbor Air gets its wings clipped

"Harbor Air is flying through turbulent times and some observers speculate the Friday Harbor-based company is headed for a crash landing in bankruptcy court.The company, however, is still flying into Oak Harbor and a representative says the airline is actually expanding into other markets. But Director of Marketing Rick Jones admits the company's financial future depends on its ability to fly in and out of the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.The problem is the Port of Seattle terminated Harbor Air's lease agreement for gate space at Sea-Tac airport last Wednesday after the airline failed to make past-due payments. Since then, Harbor Air has been flying into Boeing Field and bus-shuttling passengers to Sea-Tac.Port of Seattle Media Officer Bob Parker said Sea-Tac has been working with Harbor Air for more than six months to set up a payment deal after the company became delinquent on lease fees. But he says Harbor Air stopped making payments in February and company officials didn't return phone calls to the port.Harbor Air owes the Port of Seattle more than $100,000.Jones, however, said the company has been treated unfairly by Port of Seattle officials. He said the company and the port had worked out a payment schedule to pay off a debt. He says the port unexpectedly demanded a large payment of $93,000 and then gave the company a one-hour eviction notice.I've heard some people say this is a David vs. Goliath deal, Jones said. I hope that's true because David eventually wins.Parker disputes Harbor Air's account of the events. We're actually troubled by this characterization, he said. We worked with them for six months and gave them many breaks.Yet getting evicted from Sea-Tac isn't the company's only problem.Harbor Air also owes thousands of dollars in unpaid personal property taxes to King, Island and San Juan counties. Island County Treasurer Maxine Sauter says Harbor Air owes $38,000 to King County, $17,000 to Island County and $11,000 to San Juan.Sauter said the unpaid taxes date back to 1999 in Island County.Also, the Port of Friday Harbor voted Wednesday night to give the company a 30-day deadline to pay $6,000 in unpaid fees or to get out. Harbor Air, owned by Rick Boehlke, was originally based in Friday Harbor, but its corporate headquarters is now in Gig Harbor.Jones said he could not comment on the back tax or Friday Harbor issues. But he admits he's heard rumors that Harbor Air is headed towards bankruptcy, but he says they simply aren't true.Most of the rumors and predictions of bankruptcy seem to be coming from Oak Harbor for some reason, he said.Jones did say Harbor Air is aggressively working to get back into Sea-Tac and is calling on community members in the San Juans and on Whidbey to help them lobby the Seattle port commissioners. He says the company has the money to pay the past-due bill, but airlines officials first want to get back into Sea-Tac.If the Harbor Air can't get back into Sea-Tac, Jones admits it would threaten its contracts with Alaska and Horizon airlines. Harbor Air has co-chair agreements with the two major airlines, he said. Horizon, for example, will sell a ticket to a customer on Whidbey Island that includes a round trip between the Oak Harbor Air Park and Sea-Tac via Harbor Air. With the package agreement, the customer only pays $60 for the Harbor Air round trip ride.We need to convince the port of the importance to these communities of having consistent flights, he said. It's part of the infrastructure.Parker said the port wants Harbor Air back at Sea-Tac.We want to have that kind of service here. It's a nice mix, he said. The service they offer is incredibly convenient to the major airlines.Harbor Air operates six Cessna Grand Caravans, each with a nine-person capacity. The planes fly between Port Angeles, Orcas Island , Friday Harbor, Oak Harbor and Seattle. The airline runs flights into Oak Harbor nine times a day. Jones said about 100 people fly in and out of Oak Harbor each day.Jones said the airline recently expanded into Florida. Harbor Air now operates under the name Florida Air in the heart of orange grove and tourist country. The Puget Sound region has a strong off-season during the winter, which adds to the company's financial problems. Having a strong wintertime business in Florida will help during the slow time.It will kind of offset the off-season, he said.You can reach staff reporter Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611. "

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