Cantwell: Portland-to-D.C. route an economic opportunity

By:  Erik Siemers
Source: Portland Business Journal

The Portland area’s elected officials celebrated news of the new Portland-to-D.C. air service as the arrival of a new economic recruitment tool.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said in an interview Monday that the new Alaska Airlines    service between PDX and Reagan National Airport — which the carrier said will begin by Sept. 8 — is like any new piece of infrastructure brought into a region.

“Basically, what flight routes represent are opportunities for economic development and more companies to locate within a region,” Cantwell, chair of the senate’s aviation committee. “It’s like any other piece of infrastructure. The more infrastructure you have, the more people that need those services are willing to locate there.

Seattle-based Alaska Airlines (NYSE: ALK) won approval from the U.S. Department of Transportation    to offer the nonstop flights from Portland, as well as one from San Diego.

Routes to Reagan National are coveted by carriers. Not only are they profitable, but they’re hard to get.

Because of the airport's proximity to the capital, it is one of the few domestic commercial airports that requires an act of Congress to add flights. As part of the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill approved last year, Congress agreed to add service into Reagan National from four new cities, setting up what could be a heated competition for one of the coveted slots.

The other cities to get service to Reagan National were San Francisco via Virgin America; San Juan, Puerto Rico, via JetBlue Airways; and Austin, Texas, via Southwest Airlines.

Cantwell said she fought along with Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both Oregon Democrats, and the rest of the region’s Congressional delegation to correct what they saw as an inequity in the number of direct flights from the West Coast serving the nation’s capital.

“Some of the (markets) that had big market share of the capital already wanted to fight hard just to increase that,” Cantwell said. “The West Coast had to band together to say we had been unfairly excluded from access.”

In addition to the Congressional support, Alaska Air Group CEO-elect Brad Tilden gave credit to a grassroots effort of around 13,000 people who sent letters to the federal DOT to support the application.

United Airlines    already offers one nonstop flight per day from PDX to Dulles International Airport, but the Reagan spot is considered more attractive because it’s more than 25 miles closer to downtown D.C.

“Helping establish this route has been our highest domestic air service priority, because Portland remained the largest market in the U.S. without existing or planned nonstop service to Washington National,” Port Executive Director Bill Wyatt said in a news release. “The Washington National location offers great convenience, providing the closest access to Washington D.C., one of our country’s most important business markets. Nonstop air service also increases schedule reliability over one-stop service.”

Wyden, much like Cantwell, believes the improved access and reliability of D.C.-bound service can be an economic tool for the region.

“Right now, the demand for flights from Oregon to Washington, D.C. far exceeds the current capacity and with these increased flights between the two destinations will come greater economic growth for Oregon and the Pacific Northwest,” Wyden said in a news release. “Oregon is fast becoming a technology industry hub and D.C. is the center for technology policy. Connecting these two regions with more direct flights will only serve to improve Oregon’s innovative tech industry while increasing opportunities for more and more residents of the east coast to take part in Oregon’s excellent recreation industry.”