Whidbey business community leaders lament flightless future

"Whidbey Island's loss of direct air service with the grounding of Harbor Air in Oak Harbor could send the area's economy into a nosedive, area business leaders warn.The island, already suffering heavy economic losses caused by Initiative 695, a high state tax burden and the migration of industry and commerce to the mainland, could see bigger losses in the near future if direct air flights to SeaTac Airport are not restored, said Andy Hunter, Island County Economic Development Council board chairman. Hunter, who is also Whidbey Island Bank president, was one of several from the Oak Harbor and Coupeville communities who said Whidbey may lose more businesses - both new and established - if the ongoing problems with Harbor Air remain unresolved and another carrier fails to pick up service.We don't think it's a good thing at all for the health of the island, said Hunter. Harbor Air played a very important part of commerce on the island.On May 10, Harbor Air stopped flying into Oak Harbor after King County seized one of its planes for failure to pay back taxes. A day earlier, it stopped service to Friday Harbor in the San Juan Islands.Hunter said it was too early to measure the direct impact caused by the service loss, though he speculated the longer the island went without direct air travel the less attractive it will be for potential businesses.For years, the Island County EDC has been grappling with how to entice businesses with family-wage jobs into the county. The problems with Harbor Air could make that equation even more difficult, Hunter said.Bill Bradkin, owner of Coupeville Travel, said he feared the lack of air service could eventually persuade the Navy to pull their operations here. If the Bush administration begins another round of military base closures, as he suspected it will, Whidbey's inaccessibility could be a major consideration - and major detriment to keeping the base open, Bradkin said.Bradkin said the situation with Harbor Air stranded about 10 of his customers either on the island or at Sea-Tac Airport. He added he had trusted the airline up until the beginning of the year, when it started cutting its service and experiencing major schedule delays.Bradkin said the business he did with Harbor Air was minimal, as he believed was the case with other travel companies. Nonetheless, he said, he wasn't looking forward to life without direct air travel off Whidbey.Bradkin said one of the surest solutions to the ongoing problems with Harbor Air - and for that matter the Oak Harbor Airport, which is owned at least in part by the airline - would be to institute civilian airline service flying into the military base. He said joint operating agreements between the government and private carriers have worked at other bases.Don Piercy, senior vice-president and director of marketing for Pacific Northwest, Bank lamented the loss of Harbor Air, which may soon be closed down permanently.It means further isolation for us on the island, Piercy said. It just seems a shame.Meanwhile at least one of the two most-frequently used shuttle services to Sea-Tac is expanding daily service to the airport. Starting in June, Airporter Shuttle will add two morning trips from Oak Harbor to Sea-Tac that travel directly from Oak Harbor to Mount Vernon, where riders continue directly to SeaTac, said Richard Johnson, chief financial officer.Johnson said the company, which last year served between 25,000-30,000 customers from the Oak Harbor area, is planning the new service because it is concerned about the folks of Whidbey.Bradkin said thinking about driving down Interstate 5, even with the expanded frequency of service, would likely discourage some from traveling at all. Piercy put it another way: Now, it's going to be that much more difficult if you want to catch a connecting flight and see you Aunt Mildred in Ohio.I think it's a black eye for the entire island if we lose the airline. "

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