News

San Juan Airlines reborn

Owners of NW Seaplanes buy West Isle Air

The owners of NW Seaplanes have purchased West Isle Air, officers of both companies said Friday. A press conference is scheduled today, 2 p.m., in the Inns at Friday Harbor Suites.

West Isle’s name is being changed to San Juan Airlines, the name of an early island airline founded by local aviation pioneer Roy Franklin.

Shane Carlson, who with his father, Clyde, owns NW Seaplanes, said Friday the two airlines will be owned and operated separately. NW Seaplanes will concentrate solely on seaplane service and will transfer its land planes to West Isle Air to boost its routes from the San Juans to Seattle.

Carlson declined to disclose the purchase price. West Isle Air was sold by Aeronautical Services, which also owns Catalina Flying Boats in California and Arizona. West Isle Air is based in Anacortes. NW Seaplanes is based in Renton.

Significant changes:

• Clyde Carlson is president of the new San Juan Airlines. His son is majority stockholder. Steve Franklin, owner of Aeronautical Services, is a minority stockholder with 25 percent. He is a son of Roy Franklin.

• San Juan Airlines is headquartered in Anacortes, in the former West Isle Air headquarters.

• NW Seaplanes will concentrate on flights between Renton and Canada, leaving Kenmore Air as the only San Juan Island-based seaplane company.

NW Seaplanes’ “land plane division will go away and become part of West Isle Air’s Seattle to Friday Harbor route,” he said. “NW Seaplanes will be NW Seaplanes. West Isle Air will be one strong airline.”

Carlson said service and staffing will be improved at West Isle Air’s Boeing Field terminal and airplanes will be upgraded. NW Seaplanes’ two Caravans and one Navajo will be added to West Isle Air’s fleet of nine Cessna 172 Skyhawks, five Cessna 206 Stationairs, two Navajos and two Cessna 207s.

NW Seaplanes will continue to operate its seaplane fleet of eight DeHavilland Beavers.

The sale is the most significant development in the local airline industry since the May 9 closure of Harbor Air. That airline closed after more than a year of trying to cover back taxes and unpaid rent.

Harbor Air’s demise ended Friday Harbor’s only direct link to SeaTac Airport. Other airlines stepped in to fill the void, offering shuttle service from Boeing Field to SeaTac.

Airlines say flights to and from SeaTac are not cost-effective.

“Those planes on the Friday Harbor-SeaTac route have to be half-full on each leg to break even,” said Dave Ross, minority stockholder in Aeronautical Services. Competition made that impossible. “The more competition, the less chance.”

Carlson agreed. “We looked into it. After Sept. 11, it’s not cost-effective,” he said, referring to security costs. “(The connection) is fairly important, but it doesn’t allow the flexibility we can offer.” He said getting to SeaTac requires a 10-minute shuttle van ride — without the parking hassles.

Steve Simpson, director of the Friday Harbor Port District, said flights from Friday Harbor to SeaTac would offer new challenges for Friday Harbor Airport.

“I have no feel for it,” he said. “We can do it if we have to, but we probably would be getting new security equipment and would possibly have federal employees manning the airport. It would be a lot of work.”

Realtor Pat O’Day, who brokered the Carlsons’ purchase of West Isle Air, said Friday Harbor to SeaTac tickets would be unaffordable because of the costs of security.

“Having one airline writes the insurance policy that service will always be there ... one unified airline is vital to the economy of the islands.”

Since Harbor Air’s closure, Simpson said he’s had only five comments lamenting the lack of a Friday Harbor-to-SeaTac route.

Simpson said the Carlsons’ purchase of West Isle Air was not unexpected. “It was very competitive. Both were offering $150 round trip, one to Boeing and one to Renton. We have always felt there is only room for one airline to fly down Sound.” Simpson called NW Seaplanes “a well-run airline.”

Friday Harbor Mayor Gary Boothman is one of those lamenting the lack of a direct flight to SeaTac. Not having the connection is “more than an inconvenience — it’s a real economic impact,” Boothman said.

“A lot of people never came to visit because they couldn’t travel directly to Friday Harbor by plane. We’re flying out next week to Hawaii and we have to leave the night before because we can’t get (to SeaTac) soon enough for the expanded wait time.” Boothman was referring to the extra time required for check-in, because of post-Sept. 11 security measures.

While local airlines flying into Boeing Field offer shuttle service to SeaTac, “You have to allow 30 minutes for the bus to get to SeaTac, assuming traffic problems,” Boothman said.

A Friday Harbor-SeaTac connection “shows we’re part of the global economy,” Boothman said. “I’ve always said, people like the isolation (of the San Juans) but they don’t want to be isolated.”

Kenmore Air has flights daily between the San Juan Islands and Lake Union. Tim Brooks, Kenmore Air’s vice president of operations, said speculation about the sale of West Isle Air had blazed for months, but news of an actual sale came as a surprise.

“From our standpoint, we’re not directly affected because West Isle is a land business and our key market is supplying seaplane service from downtown Seattle to the San Juans,” Brooks said.

“West Isle served an important niche in the market, providing ground service from Anacortes to the island. We hope that service continues.”

Brooks said smaller airlines are feeling the financial pinch because of a drop in liability limits for flight insurance. Several smaller regional airlines are going out of business or reducing service, he said.

“Insurance has shaken the whole industry,” Brooks said. “It’s had an even greater impact on small airlines.”

— Editor Richard Walker reports on local government, politics and economic development for sanjuanjournal.com and The Journal of the San Juan Islands. He can be reached at (360) 378-4191 ext. 15 or email.

— Scott Rasmussen reports on regional government and education for sanjuanjournal.com and The Journal of the San Juan Islands. He can be reached at (360) 378-4191 ext. 13 or email.

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