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Kenmore Air may fly by Whidbey

When Kenmore Air began its Oak Harbor-to-Seattle seaplane service in the spring of 2002, the company hoped to build a steady clientele of air travelers.

But business has been slow, company officials say. Indeed, the company was losing money on the Oak Harbor route, until recently.

In the spring of 2003 the company tied its Oak Harbor run to its profit-making San Juan Island flights. That means planes now make a 15-minute pit stop at the Oak Harbor Marina enroute from the San Juans on an as-needed basis, rather than on a regularly scheduled run.

Still, the Oak Harbor stop can be more of an inconvenience than a money-generator, said Kenmore’s Vice President Tim Brooks.

“We’re talking to our customer base about that,” said Brooks of the occasional stops in Oak Harbor. “It does take its toll. It takes time to stop enroute and make that stop in Oak Harbor. If the numbers don’t improve there may be a point in the future where we may choose to discontinue service.”

That would be bad news to many on Whidbey Island. Oak Harbor’s airport hasn’t had plane service for several years.

Such air service can be a key component of economic development and tourism.

The seaplanes, which hold from six to 10 passengers, are one of Whidbey’s last air transportation links. Navy personnel often fly on the planes to shorten their travel time to Sea-Tac airport.

The seaplanes take about 20 minutes to go from Oak Harbor to Seattle’s Lake Union. Kenmore then provides a free shuttle service to the airport. Cost of a one-way flight is $70; roundtrip is $130.

Brooks said his company has considered starting up a land-based plane service at Oak Harbor airport.

“A number of issues have to be worked out,” Brooks said. “That would seem to us to be a good transition if we were going to discontinue the float-plane service.”

“At this point we can’t honestly say that it will happen. We have to discuss that with a number of different entities,” he added.

For the time being, Oak Harbor City Council members agreed to encourage Kenmore to keep its seaplane service. Council members Tuesday evening waived the monthly dock usage fee at the city-owned marina. Indeed, the city has waived the monthly fee of about $220 since seaplane service began nearly two years ago.

“It is beneficial to support and encourage their continued presence here,” said Harbormaster Dave Williams.

Council members agreed, speaking positively of the seaplane service.

The company’s floats are located in shallow water at the marina, an area not normally used by boaters. The city is thus not deprived of revenue from other boaters, Williams said.

For Kenmore, the waived dock fees are a token gesture of good will on the part of Oak Harbor.

“Many communities work very diligently to attract air service and will offer subsidies and work with federal grants and other monies,” Brooks said. “We’re not asking for a subsidy but we are asking for a response from the community. Frankly, if we weren’t wanted, we probably wouldn’t be there.”

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