The Grant County area does not have the population, employment and income levels needed to support regularly scheduled passenger service at Grant County Regional Airport.
That’s the conclusion of a recent report on rural airport services presented at the Grant County Court’s Feb. 14 meeting. The Grant County area has seen declining population and household income over the past decade. It has also seen a significant drop in manufacturing sector earnings, which is positively correlated with demand for air service, the report said.
“The region has limited demand for passenger air service,” ECONorthwest said in its report. “This is due to the area’s relatively small population and limited economic footprint.”
Airport manager Haley Walker said she contacted the Oregon Department of Aviation in fall 2016 about applying for a Critical Oregon Airport Relief grant to support a passenger air service study and was told a study was already underway.
The department had contracted with ECONorthwest to describe passenger air service distribution across Oregon using the framework of supply and demand. The study was completed in January and includes a case study for Eastern Oregon, with a section on Grant County Regional Airport and John Day.
According to Federal Aviation Administration data provided in the report, Grant County Regional Airport saw 251 enplanements in 2007 and 102 in 2009, but none were reported after that date. Most Grant County air travelers drive to Boise, Idaho, a six-hour round-trip that requires an overnight stay for outbound or return flights, or both, the report said.
A slightly shorter drive would take local travelers to the Eastern Oregon Regional Airport in Pendleton, which has regularly-scheduled flights to Portland that are subsidized by the federal government. But passenger trips to and from Pendleton have declined by 82 percent since 2000 despite the subsidies, paralleling a general trend toward fewer enplanements at smaller airports across Oregon, the report said.
Among the largest employers in the Grant County area are the city of John Day, several federal and state agencies and Malheur Lumber Co., the report said. The lumber company currently operates its own planes in and out of the airport, and access to scheduled service or charter arrangements likely wouldn’t impact this business investment decision, the report said.
“It’s possible that demand exists for business travel on air taxi or charter flights, but it is unlikely that sufficient demand exists to support scheduled air services to GCRA for the foreseeable future,” the report said.
ECONorthwest noted that “for many people who choose to live in Eastern Oregon, driving long distances is routine and does not represent the same perceived cost as it may to someone from a more urban area of the state. Thus, the most stable primary source of demand for small rural airports would be business travelers, with less predictable demand from tourists or travelers on personal business.”
Walker told the Eagle that communities typically draft a business plan for their airports and present it to an air service company to attract their business. She said the county was considering scheduled service with six- to nine-seat aircraft, but the Grant County airport could not meet the “load factor” requirements.
According to ECONorthwest’s study, load factor is the most common tool used to describe a marketplace for scheduled air passenger service. Load factor combines the supply of seats available in a region to the demand by passengers choosing to fly from that location.
“High load factors mean that airlines are able to ‘right size’ the supply of seats with the demand,” the study said. “In other words, passengers are filling every seat on the plane, thereby maximizing revenue for that flight.”
Grant County Commissioner Boyd Britton noted that ECONorthwest’s report never mentioned The Retreat and Links at Silvies Valley Ranch, a new major tourism attraction in Grant County.
Walker said she believes the report is an accurate description of current conditions, however. Tourism is not a good indicator of consistent demand, she said. If it costs too much to fly, people in this region are willing to drive, she said. Seats on a plane need to be filled to make it work for private business, she said.
Grant County Judge Scott Myers agreed that based on the study it didn’t make sense to approach an air service company about establishing flights to John Day. Air taxi and charter flights could continue as an alternative, he noted.