February 13, 2002 11:00 pm
If the plan gets off the ground, passenger planes similar to this one would fly up to four people per trip (plus two pilots) on business or pleasure trips in the area from Southern British Columbia to Nevada, from Western Montana to Northern California. (Sky Taxi photo).
If the plan gets off the ground, passenger planes similar to this one would fly up to four people per trip (plus two pilots) on business or pleasure trips in the area from Southern British Columbia to Nevada, from Western Montana to Northern California. (Sky Taxi photo).

By Ray Linker

Observer Staff Writer

If enthusiasm is an endorsement, the Union County Economic Development Corporation is about to go into the air taxi business.

Board members were anxious to find out more about the company calling itself SkyTaxi, a wholly owned subsidiary of Morrow Aircraft Corporation in Salem, after the companys marketing director, Dan Waldron, made two presentations here last week.

The board instructed UCEDC executive director Joel Frank to pursue the financing opportunities for the purchase of a $500,000 aircraft, the $50,000 franchise fee and the start-up funding to pay such initial costs as pilot salaries and fuel.

Frank is gathering UCEDC financial information to present to SkyTaxi and hopes to report to the UCEDC board at its meeting on Feb. 21.

The target date, Frank said this week, is July for getting the service airborne. It would take that long to buy the plane, have it retrofitted, hire pilots and set up operation at the Union County Airport.

The company is looking for franchisees in Eastern Oregon, and Waldron indicated this area would support two operations. He spent last week making presentations in La Grande, Boardman, Baker City and Ontario. One La Grande presentation was connected via the Ed-Net system from the National Guard Armory here with groups in Astoria and Salem.

The concept is that each franchise would have a twin-engine plane at its location to fly up to four people per trip (plus two pilots) on business or pleasure trips in the area from Southern British Columbia to Nevada, from Western Montana to Northern California.

Planes would fly on demand of the customers, but there would be a network of planes, and marketing, to ensure that the Cessna 414 would make money by having few or no deadhead flights flying without passengers.

The goal here would be to leave La Grande every morning with passengers and return here by the end of the day, hopefully with passengers, Waldron said.

The regional network should be operational by March, he said.

There are already franchises in Salem, Corvallis, Newport, Aurora and Olympia, Wash.

Waldron said, We want to have 12 operators up and going in Oregon by the end of the year. Then well assess thoroughly where we are. Now we think 20 operators will be sufficient to cover the entire state, and we envision 45 to 60 eventually for the whole region. He wants to be national by 2010.

Waldron said the population base of Eastern Oregon is such that it could support two planes.

The market is there, he said. The 25,000 people in Union County are enough to keep SkyTaxi busy day in and day out, Waldron said.

Waldron described the concept as a blend of airline and charter service. Clients will be able to fly when they want and where they want. We are going to offer premium service and prices comparable to regular airlines.

The service will also provide door-to-door travel, providing shuttle vans for people needing connections to major airlines, such as at Portland or Boise airports. There would be quick boarding and deplaning. Passengers wouldnt have to be at the airport two hours before a SkyTaxi flight, as is required with the security measures now at major airports. There will be, of course, secure pre-boarding check-in, Waldron said.

A major aspect of the plan is that it would serve smaller airports, such as Hillsboro, Astoria, La Grande, Ontario, avoiding the gridlock at major airports, which is expected to worsen in the next few years.

Several business groups or agencies would use the service, mainly to curtail or eliminate their overnight stays in Western Oregon, those attending the two meetings in La Grande indicated.

Bruce Cartmel, region manager for Boise Cascade, said the service has good appeal for Boise Cascade. Approval would have to be obtained from Boise Cascade headquarters in Boise, he said.

Tim Seydel of Eastern Oregon University said EOU officials make numerous trips weekly to such places as Salem, Eugene, Portland and its difficult to connect with flights out of Pendleton.

U.S. Forest Service officials likely would be another group which could use the service, Waldron said.

Marsha Duncan of the Oregon Department of Transportation region office said after one of the presentations that her agency could use the service, especially for trips back and forth from Salem.

Astoria airport officials, connected via the Ed-Net system to the presentation at the armory here, were very interested in finding a franchise operator there. The National Guard wants to use the service to get people to Camp Rilea for training and other activities there. Other agencies also use the camp for training.

Those purchasing franchises, such as UCEDC, would not just be buying into the local service, Waldron said.

You would buy into the whole network, not just into one plane. Our GPS technology would track all the planes. Reservations would be made through our 1-800 number or by e-mail.

The planes in the network would be dispatched to wherever they are needed, Waldron said. If six planes are needed at one location to transport people, such as National Guardsmen, to one other location, the planes will be there, he said.

Think of it as a Yellow Cab with wings, he said.

The local franchise owners would be responsible for buying a plane, paying pilots salaries, purchasing fuel and providing a hangar and any office space they wanted at the airport.

Fares include a one-seat SkyTaxi Share Fare price for those making reservations seven days in advance and a VIP Fare group rate for those who want service within two-hour period and who will get four seats for the price of three.

The ShareFare rate from La Grande to Portland, for example, would be $190 one way and the flight would take an hour and seven minutes, Waldron said.

There is no commercial flight from La Grande to Portland, but Waldron used as a comparison the cost of flying one way from the Portland area to Seattle. On Horizon, that fare is $162; on SkyTaxi, it will be $128.

The network would use what he called revenue smoothing, distributing income to all the franchisees involved, using a pre-set formula that helps guarantee success of all locations while providing the parent company a royalty.

Waldron said the planes are comfortable and spacious, with work area and storage for such things as golf clubs, skis, guns and ammo for those going on hunting trips. There is a lavatory on board.

Waldron presented figures for various fare structures, how the company would do marketing in destination areas, and other details of interest to prospective franchisees.

This will be a real asset to the community, not only to existing businesses and agencies, but it will help us attract new businesses to locate here said UCEDC President Mark Davidson.

Frank, the UCEDC executive director, said, This is a win-win situation for us in terms of economic development.

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