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Civilian airport options weighed

While Navy jets circling Whidbey Island are a fact of life, it’s much more difficult for civilians to get on or off the island by air.

Flying options have been curtailed for nearly three years, ever since Harbor Air ceased operations at Oak Harbor Airport on Monroe Landing Road, leaving Whidbey Island without commercial land-based air service.

“I believe it’s critically important for our county to have commercial air service,” Mike Shelton, Island County commissioner, said. “I’d like the carriers to know we are very, very interested in having a commercial airline here.”

The Joint Council of Governments met Wednesday to discuss recent developments and ponder the future of the airport. The group consists of county commissioners, representatives from the county’s three cities and two port districts.

Coupeville Mayor Nancy Conard chaired the meeting which was attended by Island County commissioners Mike Shelton, Mac McDowell and Bill Byrd; Sharon Hart, Island County Economic Development director; Port of Coupeville commissioner Ed Van Patten and Port administrator John Coyne; Larry Munns, retired Whidbey Naval Air Station commander; representatives from the state Department of Transportation’s Aviation division, Washington Public Ports and the state Office of Community, Trade and Economic Development.

Also present were representatives from San Juan Airlines and Kenmore Air, both of whom expressed an interest in providing commercial service at the airport.

Joel Eisenberg, a Seattle businessman, attended to share his plans with the joint council. He said at the meeting that he would own the airport by month’s end, but later said it could be much longer, due to many legal issues involving ownership of the airstrip.

Public venture considered

The biggest issue before the joint council was whether the airport should be a public or private venture, or a combination.

If it was owned or operated by a government agency it would be eligible for state and federal funding, according to WSDOT representative Eric Johnson.

Johnson said to get government funding the airport would only need to be sponsored by a public entity. It still could be privately owned. Federal Aviation Administration funding could provide as much as 95 percent of the money needed to bring the airport up to the level needed for a full scale commercial airport, with the state and local entities each funding 5 percent. The owner’s role would be up for negotiation.

Currently the airport facilities are not adequate for instrument landings, which can lead to weather cancellations. The east-west orientation of the landing strip is also not ideal, and the runway would need to be widened to accommodate the potentially tricky landings.

Washington Public Ports representative Scott Taylor floated the idea of the Port of Coupeville taking over the operation of the airport by annexing it into the Port, which could be done by a simple majority vote of the registered voters in the to-be-annexed area.

Although the Port of Coupeville boundary is Monroe Landing Road, just across from the airport, that idea was quickly shot down by Commissioner Van Patten.

“We just flat out don’t have the money,” he said. “Our tax base will never allow us to do anything with it.”

If not the Port, then who? The participants considered the idea of a county-operated Airport Authority, but didn’t come to any conclusion. However, the county is the only other government body that is a possibility.

“We’re the only game in town,” Commissioner Byrd said.

Eisenberg, who is chairman of International Telcom, Ltd. in Seattle, said he would be amenable to a government agency running the airport under his ownership.

“I’m open to all suggestions for operating the airport,” he said. “Whatever makes the most sense to maximize the airport and serve the community.”

Eisenberg said the airport could be operating right now with no additional costs.

That was news to Commissioner Shelton, who said he had been under the impression that without government intervention the airport could not afford to operate.

“Ideally, the government stays out, and it stays in the private sector,” Shelton said.

Eisenberg responded that with public funding the airport would be less expensive to operate, and be able to provide more reliable service at a lower cost to users.

“The government can run it cheaper than I can,” he said.

Commissioner McDowell summed it up as federal funding equating to a better facility, but suggested Eisenberg start the operation as soon as possible, then check back with the local governments in six months to see if he still needed public funding.

Lariman said the Office of Community, Trade and Economic Development could fund a feasibility study concurrently to determine the viability of the airport.

Two air companies interested

While the local government agencies were hesitant to step in, two commercial air companies say they are ready to start serving the airport.

Both Kenmore Air and San Juan Airlines would be willing and able to serve the airport with nine-passenger single engine Caravans.

Kenmore currently serves Oak Harbor with a float plane, which shuttles passengers from Lake Union to SeaTac. It recently cut the service from a regular stop to an as-needed basis. The company will begin offering land services at William Fairchild International Airport in Port Angeles in June.

“We would like to consider Oak Harbor as another dedicated service,” Tim Brooks said. The company has been studying the idea, and Brooks said they are in the final phases of a feasibility study.

San Juan Air is also interested in providing service for Whidbey islanders.

“It’s what we do,” Clyde Carlson said simply. San Juan Air currently serves the San Juans, Port Angeles and British Columbia.

Carlson expressed reservations about the airstrip at the Monroe Landing field, as it can not be considered reliable for instrument approaches at its current width.

Both carriers would land at Boeing field and provide shuttle service to SeaTac.

Sharon Hart, executive director of the Island District Economic Development Council, is excited to see the airport moving forward. She sees it as an economic boon to the island.

“The transportation connection is extremely important to economic activity,” she said.

Many local businesses have expressed a desire to be able to connect more easily with SeaTac, and the airport could be essential for moving military personnel.

Increased tourism is also a factor.

“It would put us back on the map,” Hart said. If people coming into SeaTac can’t make a direct connection to Whidbey they’ll go someplace else for an “island experience,” she said.

“People are hungry to get on and off the island without the I-5 corridor,” she said.

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