July 24, 2002 11:00 pm

By Ray Linker

Observer Staff Writer

SkyTaxi, the on-demand air passenger service for La Grande, will be flying its own plane by Aug. 4, said Joel Frank, executive director of the Union County Economic Development Corporation.

"We have had four flights in and out of La Grande this week," said Frank, "but our own plane is still awaiting an inspection from Federal Aviation Administration officials."

UCEDC, a private corporation promoting economic development in the county, is one of several locations in Oregon which have purchased franchises in the Salem-based start-up air service which eventually hopes to expand to much of the West.

The plan is to have 20 planes flying in the state as soon as franchises can be lined up, SkyTaxi officials have said.

The local plane, a Cessna 414 that will have two pilots and room for four passengers, can land on a runway as short as 3,000 feet.

"Using SkyTaxi planes from other locations, planes have been flying in and out of La Grande regularly," Frank said. "There have been four flights this week and there'll be flights coming in here and then going on to Joseph for Chief Joseph Days."

Salem, Portland and Bend have been identified as the traffic patterns the local plane is likely to serve moste often, Frank said. Another August flight has been booked for Klamath Falls.

To date, people associated with State Forestry and Eastern Oregon University have used the service, Frank said. Next week, engineers for the proposed Sustainable Energy company will fly in for two days to inspect their Baum Industrial Park site, Frank said.

"We expect to have our plane in the air 40 to 50 hours a week right away and that will go to about 70 within three months, I believe," he said.

The La Grande plane was supposed to have been ready by July 1, but the delay has been with the FFA inspectors, Frank said.

"They're behind in their inspections. Our pilots have been trained at a training center in Long Beach, Calif., and the plane has completed maintenance," Frank said.

UCEDC now has four pilots and a support person.

Ronn Witcraft, who was hired last month, is joined by Jeff Ross of Vancouver as a pilot. Two others, Eric Bates and Piller Eppling, have been hired as co-pilots.

Toni Jones, who has worked at Eastern Oregon University, joins the team to do marketing, coordinating and bookwork, Frank said.

Reservations now can be made by phone (503-365-0200 or 1-866-759-8294) or via the company's Web site: in the future. Part of the Web site is still under construction.

The company advertises that it serves Oregon, Washington, southern British Columbia, Idaho, northwest Utah, western Montana, northern California and Nevada.

Available flights can be looked up on the company Web site and fares can be calculated. Anyone making a reservation 14 days in advance "automatically triggers a flight" and other people then can book the remaining open seats for that particular flight.

Frank said he hopes to set up a public event at the airport sometime next month to acquaint local residents with the plane and the SkyTaxi concept.