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Who should own Oak Harbor’s old, but needed airport?

For nearly three years, the Oak Harbor airport on Monroe Landing Road has been without a commercial air service.

This has left a gaping hole in local transportation, and in Island County’s economic development prospects. Many companies shy away from communities without air service.

Island County Economic Development Council Director Sharon Hart said that people constantly ask her when a new carrier will start flying out of the airport.

“It’s always on the front burner,” Hart said.

However, a considerable amount of work needs to be done before commercial air service at the airport can be restored. The issue was discussed at a recent Joint Council of Governments meeting, which brings together Island County government, the county’s three cities and Whidbey Island’s two port districts to work on common issues.

John Sibold, Director of Aviation for the Washington State Department of Transportation, said there are three things that need to be accomplished for the airport to become commercially viable again: move the facility into some kind of public ownership, assess the airport’s facilities, and conduct a marketing study.

Putting the airport into public ownership would make it eligible for state money to help update and maintain the facility, Sibold said.

Once the airport meets federal standards, it could become eligible for federal money.

He added that updated facilities would make the airport more attractive to a commercial carrier.

However, it remains unclear which public entity would be interested in the airport.

“The logical ownership for airport is a port district,” said Island County Commissioner Mike Shelton during the meeting. “But that wouldn’t benefit either district.”

He was referring to the Port of Coupeville and the South Whidbey Port District, neither of which is near the airport. Oak Harbor doesn’t have a port district. Voters rejected that idea by a wide margin several years ago.

City of Oak Harbor officials have looked into getting involved, as has Island County. The county now receives about $500,000 annually in economic development money from the state which could be used in the airport project.

Stan Allison, manager of Aviation Operations for the Department of Transportation, said that the airport would have to go through significant upgrades before it could be certified as a commercial airport.

Such improvements to the airport could include lengthening the runway, improving the safety facilities for passengers and improving security, Allison said.

A marketing study would help determine the type of service that could be profitable on the island.

Two possibilities for air service to the island include Horizon Air or a smaller carrier. Sibold said that tickets for Horizon Air could be pricey to maintain such service on the island.

A nearby airport went through a similar dilemma for commercial service. Jeff Robb, manager for Port Angeles Airport, was on hand during the meeting to talk about commercial service.

Horizon Air pulled out of the Port Angeles airport in early January.

“We were shocked that they pulled out of our market,” Robb said, adding that the airline became too big to serve the airport.

The airport brought in San Juan Airlines in Horizon’s place. Robb said that the airline has been well received by the community.

San Juan Air provides commercial service to Boeing Field and then drives passengers to SeaTac Airport.

The emergence of such air service could improve the business climate of Whidbey Island.

“Without an airport in your community, you are very disadvantaged when it comes to economic development,” Sibold said.

The airport has been without commercial air service since May 2001 when its only carrier, Harbor Air, folded due to financial difficulties.

Harbor Air, which is owned by Richard Boehlke, is saddled with hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt. That debt includes back taxes and money owed to several local individuals. Boehlke still owns the airport. Efforts to contact him for this story were unsuccessful.

In 2002, Air International LLC filed a complaint arguing that Harbor Air defaulted on a $500,000 promissory note. However, that matter remains in the court system.

“I’m surprised that it hasn’t been brought into bankruptcy court,” said Omer Lupien, son of the airport’s founder, Wes Lupien.

Wes Lupien started Whidbey Flying Service in 1964 and the local airline operated daily flights for 30 years, Omer Lupien said.

He doesn’t expect anything to happen concerning the airport until the facility’s debts are resolved.

Currently, the airport is used only by private plane owners.

There is currently a commercial service flying out of Oak Harbor. Kenmore Air has flown seaplanes from Oak Harbor to Lake Union since 2002, though it no longer operates on a regular schedule — only when someone asks to be pick up or dropped off in Oak Harbor.

The next step is to continue talking. The Joint Council of Governments meeting provided an early blueprint of where to go next.

“It gives us some framework if we ever want to get this restored,” said Coupeville Mayor Nancy Conard, who is chairing the organization.

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