Kenmore quits its Oak Harbor flights

Kenmore Air will stop flying out of the Oak Harbor Airport at the beginning of next year and officials say they probably can't come back without a ridership guarantee from the Navy.

The Kenmore-based company announced the suspension of operations out of the airfield on Monroe Landing Road Friday. The airline will reduce service in December to two flights a day and will cease operations Jan. 1.

"We're very sad about it and it wasn't an easy decision to make," said Craig O’Neill, director of marketing and sales. "We really tried everything to make it work. We sure hope this isn't the absolute end of the road."

O'Neill said a variety of factors led to the the cessation of operations, but the faltering economy ultimately forced the company's hands. The service out of Oak Harbor never came close to being profitable.

"We've been subsidizing it on the backs of other markets," he said.

The downturn in the economy has caused a decline in flights across the board, he said, and the company just can't afford to continue bankrolling Oak Harbor.

Since starting service on Whidbey Island in May 2006, Kenmore Air Express flew more than 26,000 passengers between Seattle and Oak Harbor. In the peak month, June 2007, more than 1,300 people flew to or from Oak Harbor, but as of October 2008, this number had dwindled to less than 750. The best month of 2008 saw fewer than 900 passengers, the company reported.

The main problem with the Oak Harbor service, officials say, is that the expected Navy ridership never materialized. The former airline, Harbor Air, used to fly about 90 percent of the Navy's travel between Seattle and Whidbey Island Naval Air Station.

But Kenmore never got more than 25 percent of the base's travel, O'Neill said.

Over the last two months, Kenmore Air has run a shuttle service between the base and the Oak Harbor Airport, also known as Wes Lupien Airport. The service was funded through a grant the city of Oak Harbor received from the federal government.

"There was very limited utilization" of the shuttle service, O'Neill said.

"If there is a ‘silver bullet’ for ensuring the success of airline service in Oak Harbor, it’s getting the Navy onboard, and if an agreement could ever be reached to assure a sufficient level of Navy flying in the future, we’d certainly be interested in restarting Oak Harbor service," said airline general manager Todd Banks in a press release.

Sharon Hart, director of the Island County Economic Development Council, helped to bring Kenmore Air to the island in the first place. She said she plans to continue to work with the company and the Navy to return air service to Oak Harbor.

Hart said the service is vital to the economy.

"It's an economic driver. That's a given," she said. "We won't be taken seriously for business recruitment if we don't have air service."

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