With an $850,000 federal grant to attract airlines, the Salem Municipal Airport is one step closer to providing commercial air service to the region.
But McNary Field is still a long way – and millions of dollars – from being more than a general aviation airport.
Potential flight destinations could include Phoenix, San Francisco, Las Vegas and Los Angeles, according to a joint statement released Thursday by U.S. Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley.
“Regional air service through small airports like this in Oregon’s capital is crucial to our state’s economy,” Wyden said in the statement. “I’m glad to see these dollars going toward expanding regional air service in Salem to have a more accessible option for travel in and out of the Mid-Willamette Valley. Investing in smaller airports like Salem Airport lays the foundation to continue supporting our state’s economic growth and tourism.
In a letter of support, Wyden said adding air service from Salem would eliminate 100,000 vehicle trips to Portland each year.
The city will receive $850,000 from the US Department of Transportation’s Small Community Air Service Development Program to recruit, launch and support new air services to California, Nevada and Arizona.
Wyden said the recruiting initiative is anchored by the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce, Travel Salem and SEDCOR.
Three airlines have reportedly expressed interest in setting up shop in Salem. A regional airline called Aha! sent a letter of interest to the TSA. The airline would fly twice a week from Salem to Reno. The other two are larger airlines with more destination options.
“I want to thank senators for their support of this grant,” Salem Mayor Chuck Bennett said in a statement. “This money is an important step in the City of Salem’s recovery of commercial air. Commercial aviation will support and grow the economy of the Mid-Willamette Valley, increase tourism, reduce traffic and congestion along the I-5 corridor, and create less dependency on Portland International Airport.
But the new funding doesn’t mean residents can book a flight anytime soon.
Significant investment is required to bring the airport up to FAA and TSA standards for commercial air service.
The 751-acre airport is home to more than 130 aircraft hangars and businesses, as well as the Oregon National Guard Army Aviation Support Facility.
At a recent Salem City Council business session, city staff presented two renovation and operating plans costing $3.9 million and $10-12 million. The cheapest plan, which would only include the renovation, would take about nine to 12 months. This work would make it possible to work with smaller 50-seat aircraft.
The $12 million plan would include renovating and expanding the terminals to accommodate more passengers and would take 12 to 18 months. This plane would be needed to work with larger capacity aircraft.
According to the city’s report, more airport, police and fire personnel, as well as new equipment and vehicles, are also needed to keep the airport safe and running.
The working session highlighted both the opportunities and risks of bringing commercial air service to Salem.
Staff said the airport could increase tourism to the area, reduce carbon emissions by reducing trips to Portland and Eugene airports, and provide an added convenience for Salem residents.
At the same time, the air service requires significant investment in infrastructure, personnel and equipment before the airport can generate revenue and it does not come with any obligation on the airline or a guarantee of sustainability or growth of the air service.