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Harbor Air folds its Whidbey wings

"People who went to the Oak Harbor Airport on Wednesday to catch a flight to Sea-Tac Airport got a rude surprise.Harbor Airlines is voluntarily suspending operations pending reorganization. Sorry for any inconvenience, a sign on the door of the tiny terminal office read.Another sign said all employees should return their badges and keys to the station manager. About 30 cars were parked in the airport lot while the owners will likely be stranded at Sea-Tac.Immediately after the closure, however, Whidbey Island residents started making plans to purchase the airport while an Anacortes airline wants to take over Harbor Air's routes.The fact that Harbor Air shut down probably doesn't come as a big surprise to anyone who's been following the company's financial troubles for the past two months. In all, the company owned by Rick Boehlke of Gig Harbor has more than $1 million in debts. King County recently took the unusual step of seizing an airplane to make up for unpaid back taxes in King, Island and San Juan counties. The Port of Seattle kicked the company out of Sea-Tac last month because of failure to pay more than $100,000 in gate lease fees.Harbor Air also owes money to the Internal Revenue Service, the Port of Seattle, the Port of Friday Harbor, a financial company holding their mortgage on the Oak Harbor Airport, the Cessna company and many customers who purchased now-useless tickets.For many Oak Harbor residents, the closure is a mighty unhappy thing.It's sad for Oak Harbor, said Omer Lupien. His father, Wes Lupien, started the airline - which was originally called Whidbey Flying Service - and modernized the airport back in 1964.(The Airline) was dependable for 30 years. I can't remember a day it didn't run. But since Boehlke has owned it, it hasn't been that way, he added.It's a sad day, it really is, Realtor Geri Morgan said. It's been running for so long, but the wrong person got ahold of it.The only person answering phones this week at the Harbor Air headquarters in Gig Harbor was a receptionist who wouldn't give her name. She said the airline is not running any flights and it is yet to be seen whether the company will ever operate again.Mike Fergus, a public affairs officer at the Federal Aviation Administration, said Harbor Air notified the agency Thursday that it was voluntarily ceasing commercial operations. He says the company can still operate on a charter or service-on-demand basis.The reason Harbor Air cited for closing down, he said, is financial difficulties.It has nothing to do with their track record, safety problems or anything else except finances, he said.If Harbor Air ever wants to start up again, Fergus said the company would first have to apply to the Department of Transportation and then to the FAA.Harbor Air has had a valuable code-share agreement with Horizon Airline, which means the bigger airline sold packages that include Harbor Air flights. But Horizon Airline Public Affairs Manager Cheryl Temple said she has no idea what is happening with Harbor Air.The Federal Bankruptcy Court reported Friday that neither Harbor Air nor owner Rick Boehlke have filed for bankruptcy.What the future holds for Harbor Air or Wes Lupien Airport - popularly known as the Oak Harbor Airport - is unknown.One of Harbor Air's six Cessna Caravan aircraft is being held by King County, but no auction has been scheduled yet.Airport may be soldLupien, who lives next door to the airport, said he got a notice that a Seattle company called H&L Services is foreclosing on the airport and auctioning it off July 6 because Harbor Air owes $356,000. There's a lot of public interest in purchasing the airport, which includes more than 50 acres of land. Lupien said he might be interested, though Boehlke has claimed that the airport is worth $1 million. Lupien said it's worth probably less than half that.Lupien said he also knows of four other people who are interested in acquiring the airport. Morgan said she knows of several people who are trying to put their assets together to buy the land.West Isle to fill flight voidGreg Baker, general manager of Anacortes-based West Isle Air, said the airline has been planning for a long time to fly into Oak Harbor and offer regular flight between Boeing Field in South Seattle, Oak Harbor and the San Juans. The obstacle was that Harbor Air owned the Oak Harbor Airport, but that may change now.We've been sitting on the sidelines waiting to see what happens to Harbor Air, Baker said. We certainly want to provide service out of Oak Harbor. ... It's a really good route with the population and all the Navy personnel.Baker said the company is not interested in buying the airport, just stopping there for regular flights.If that happens, Baker said it's unlikely that the airline will fly directly into Sea-Tac, as Harbor Air did before it was grounded last month for not paying fees. In fact, he said the giant fees for a gate at Sea-Tac was probably a major part of Harbor Air's downfall. Instead, West Isle will continue to fly into Boeing Field, where passengers can catch a free 10-minute van ride to Sea-Tac.Baker said it's the type of the trade-offs small airlines have to make to survive in the new economy.The transportation business is very tough, he said. The tax burden and reporting requirements are very, very onerous.You can reach staff reporter Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611. "

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