Daily flights return to Oak Harbor airport

Islanders may find it funny to hear radio reports of traffic jams and snail-paced commutes on I-5.

It’s a different story when South Enders are the ones caught in a crawling line of cars on the way to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

Starting Monday, however, islanders will have a new option. For the first time in five years, Whidbey Island has airline service from Oak Harbor to Seattle. Kenmore Air Express is now offering 45-minutes trips to Sea-Tac.

Each 25-minute non-stop flight from Oak Harbor to Boeing Field will connect with a shuttle bus to Sea-Tac, said Craig O’Neil, Kenmore Air’s director of marketing and sales. That means a total trip time of 45 minutes from Wes Lupien Airport in Oak Harbor to Sea-Tac, he said.

From Langley, the travel time to Sea-Tac will be about 80 minutes, including the drive to Oak Harbor.

The cost of the Sea-Tac shuttle is included in the airfare, which will be $29 each way during a introductory period. Considering current gas prices and ferry fares, $29 is a good price, O’Neil said.

The service will begin Monday, May 22.

Kenmore Air officials say the flights will be easy and convenient.

Passengers can arrive in Oak Harbor just minutes before the actual departure. Those who don’t arrive with their own car can take an Island Transit bus to Wes Lupien Airport. The bus stops right in front of the Oak Harbor airfield.

And Kenmore Air officials point out there are no delays due to check-in procedures or because the airport is overcrowded.

Flights start from 5 a.m. in Oak Harbor. The last flight of the day to Whidbey arrives at 11:40 p.m. at Wes Lupien Airport.

Even though passengers travel in a small aircraft that seats about 10 people, they can bring 70 pounds of luggage per person. Military personnel are allowed to bring up to 125 pounds.

It’s been five years since commercial flights have flown out of Wes Lupien Airport.

“It used to be a way of life,” said Patty Cohen, mayor of Oak Harbor.

The start of flight service in Oak Harbor followed several months of intense activity by the airline.

Working with the Navy, the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Kenmore Air Express has reinstituted an approved instrument approach procedure into Wes Lupien Airport, permitting safe arrivals and departures in inclement weather.

The FAA authorization of the procedure had been rescinded following the stop of Oak Harbor service by Harbor Airlines in May 2001.

“When Harbor Air left, the instrument approach left with them,” said Tim Brooks, Kenmore’s vice president of flight operations.

“Getting the instrument approach back was absolutely essential to our ability to provide the level of safety and reliability of service our customers deserve,” Brooks said.

“We have made significant investments in safety-related equipment and training at the airport,” he added.

Kenmore had made thousands of dollars’ worth of improvements at the Oak Harbor airport. The airline has invested in improved approach and runway lighting, as well as lighting obstructions near the airport. The airport terminal has also been renovated.

Kenmore Air said it now needs the help of the community to succeed.

“We have to make it work,” Brooks said.

The company hopes to be an attractive service to local business and travelers, but they count on military personnel from Naval Air Station Whidbey Island and its frequent travelers to be a big portion of their customers.

Some are hoping the flights bring more than a way to avoid a slow ride to Sea-Tac.

“We are very excited to get this transportation link back,” said Sharon Hart, executive director of the Island County Economic Development Council.

Being able to travel from and to the island quickly and conveniently and connect with national flights may help the economy on South Whidbey as well.

“Transportation links are very important to our economy. It’s a negative for investors to have an isolated island community that doesn’t connect with Sea-Tac,” she said.

Flying is a good alternative for South Whidbey residents as the ferry system becomes more and more overburdened, Hart added.

Besides passenger transportation, Kenmore also offers specialized air-freight service on the Seattle–Oak Harbor route, O’Neil said. This counter-to-counter service may be especially attractive to businesses who have to get their product off the island quickly.

In other markets served by Kenmore Air Express, banks, escrow companies and couriers have found the airline an advantageous way to move documents and small parcels quickly and reliably to and from the Seattle metropolitan area, he said.

Air service to Whidbey is also an attractive feature for tourism on the South End.

“We are very excited,” said Jane Grebil, co-owner of Island Travel.

“It’s great to have the convenience again. Avoiding traffic, a free place to park,” she said.

The drive to Oak Harbor isn’t too long either.

“It’s only a 30-minute drive to the airport,” Grebil said.

Increased options for air travel has been a hot topic recently in Puget Sound.

King County officials flirted with the idea of bringing commercial passenger service to Boeing Field in Seattle last year. And Snohomish County leaders are still evaluating the prospects for bringing commercial passenger service to Paine Field near Mukilteo.

Proponents of commercial passenger service at Paine Field have eyed Whidbey Island as part of the potential market for flight service. A study done last year for the Paine Field expansion reported that it takes someone from Oak Harbor almost four hours to get to Sea-Tac; the drive to Sea-Tac for someone leaving Langley takes about 20 minutes less.

To kick off its new daily air service between Oak Harbor and Seattle, Kenmore Air Express will host a community open house with food, family activities, prize drawings, giveaways and more from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. today at Wes Lupien Airport. The event is free of charge.

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