February 18, 2002 11:00 pm

Union, Wallowa and Baker counties arent going to be seeing commercial air service any time soon. As much as people in this part of Northeast Oregon would like to believe we deserve commercial air service, it isnt going to happen without being able to provide certain financial guarantees to a regional guarantees.

Ever since the days of deregulation and the ending of federal subsidies in the 1980s, small markets have found themselves on the outs with airlines, all of which find their bread and butter in larger markets. So we might as well face the fact that if we want to fly somewhere commercially, well have to go to Pendleton to make connections. Even that city could find itself on the cutting block someday.

The MOST Union County can hope for is the next best thing. Enter Sky Taxi, an air taxi service that is the brainchild of Morrow Aircraft Corp. of Salem. The company is hoping to sell franchises for access to six-seater twin-engine aircraft that would hop about Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, Montana, Idaho and Northern California. Each franchise would have an airplane and pilots ready to fly to any other place where there is a franchise. The goal of the company would be to arrange flights so that planes wouldnt have to return to their home bases empty.

Sky Taxi owners believe Union and Wallowa counties have a base that could keep an aircraft or two flying. The Union County Economic Development Corporation, a private non-profit group, is seriously looking at buying one of the franchises as an economic development tool for Union County. Giving the concept consideration makes sense. Having air service even if its not commercial is important in todays business climate and can be a drawing card for businesses considering locating here. The lack of air service has been a drawback to boosting the areas economy. Sky Taxi would provide the link that rural Oregon long has recognized is a need but has had not had the wherewithal to provide.

Already Union County has the foundation for making such a service successful. Boise Cascade, Eastern Oregon University, the Oregon Department of Transportation and others might make use of such a service if franchises are established in the right places. Estimated ticket prices might seem prohibitive at first, but might not when travel expenses, lodging, food and personnel time are figured in.

Sky Taxi officials are planning to start their service in the region later this year. The long-term goal is to take the concept nationally. Considering the rising costs and declining service areas of airlines and their feeders, the air taxi service makes sense.

UCEDC is wise to be giving the proposal serious thought. Our region needs to get in on the ground floor of a concept that appears like it will be a winner. Having air service, even if its not officially tagged commercial, can do a lot for helping stimulate our regions economy.