Salem Airport Planning Publicly Funded Runway Extension

Miki Barnes
December 6, 2011

On 12/7/11 the Salem McNary Airport (SLE) will hold a Planning Advisory Committee (PAC) meeting from 2:00 to 4:00 PM followed by an open house from 5:30 to 7:30 PM on a proposed runway extension environmental assessment. This project is expected to cost the public at least $11 Million - $2.6 Million from ConnectOregon II and $9 Million from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Airport and Airway Trust Fund, which is "funded primarily through excise taxes imposed on airline ticket purchases, aviation fuel, and cargo shipments [1]." But before falling prey to the City of Salem's spurious rationale for this expansion, let's review why scarce public resources via ConnectOregon and the FAA are being lavished on this floundering airport. This glaring government sponsored boondoggle brings the corporate welfare underpinnings of the ConnectOregon program into sharp focus.

First the facts:

  • Over a three year period from 2007 through 2009 the annual operational count at Salem McNary Airport plummeted from 99,432 [2] to 35,938 [3]. This represents a drop of more than 63 percent.
  • A review of the 2011 statistics, to date, reveals that the annual operational count for 2011 is likely to remain in the 35,000 to 36,000 range [4].
  • Per the Salem McNary Master Plan, "In 2010, SLE was designated as a Primary airport by the FAA's 2011-2015 National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems (NPIAS) Report, which means that SLE has more than 10,000 annual passenger enplanements." NPIAS designation makes SLE eligible for FAA Airport Improvement Program funding [5].
  • Per the Federal Aviation Terminal Area Forecast (FAA TAF) [6] report, 2008, when Salem McNary recorded 19,532 total enplanements, was the only year between 1990 and the present in which this airport logged more than 10,000 annual passengers. In 2007 the passenger count topped out at 8,194. Between 1999 and 2006 there were 0 enplanements. By 2009 the passenger count dropped to 407. This 98 percent decrease in enplanements between 2008 and 2009 should bring into question Salem McNary's eligibility for NPIAS status and federal funding.
  • "The Airport had scheduled passenger airline service from 2008 to 2009 [7]." This ended when Delta withdrew due to the floundering economy, but not before ConnectOregon II doled out $1.2 Million for a passenger terminal expansion.
  • The FAA TAF report expects enplanements at Salem McNary to remain at 381 annually from 2010 through 2030.
  • Operations at Salem McNary further dropped when in July of 2011 Seaport Airlines discontinued twice-daily flights. Seaport's services to Astoria and Newport were also stopped when a controversial $3.6 Million ConnectOregon II grant ran out. The twice-daily flights out of Newport "required a subsidy of $928 per passenger [8]."
  • City of Salem Urban Development staff asserts that "The runway extension project would allow the Airport to serve larger corporate jets, a broader range of aviation uses and position the Airport for further economic growth and development that will create jobs [9]."

ConnectOregon and Corporate Welfare

ConnectOregon [10] is a lottery bond-backed program that disperses grants to non-highway funding programs. It began in 2005 after being championed by then-governor Ted Kulongoski. The five member, governor appointed Oregon Transportation Board serves as the selection committee. They determine which projects will receive funding. So far this board has disbursed close to $300 Million over the past 6 years from ConnectOregon I, II, and III funds. Salem McNary has been the recipient of two grants, both from ConnectOregon II - $1.2 Million for an ill-fated passenger terminal and $2.6 Million for the proposed runway expansion project for a combined total of $3.8 Million. In addition, they received funding through the $3.6 Million subsidy on behalf of SeaPort Airlines. Yet despite these huge public investments, operations at Salem McNary continue to decline. It is an airport that, though it aspires to commercial airport status, primarily caters to for-profit, private aviation business interests.

Significant Decline in Operations at Commercial Airports Across the State

This assumption that Salem McNary will eventually evolve into a flourishing commercial facility is difficult to justify in light of the fact that every single commercial airport in Oregon has experienced a dramatic drop in operations in recent years. A review of FAA TAF reports and airport statistical data reveals the following.

The two largest commercial airports in the state, Portland International Airport (PDX) and Eugene Mahlon Field, both located on the I-5 corridor within 50 and 65 miles respectively of Salem McNary, are prime examples of this steep decline. Neither the $6 Million PDX North Runway Extension grant nor the $4.25 Million grant for a PDX Deicing project, both funded via ConnectOregon, prevented PDX from plummeting to an operational count that marks a 25 year low, commensurate with 1986-87 levels [11]. In 2010 it logged 223,068 [12] operations, 100,000 fewer flights than it did in 1997 when it reached an all time high of 327,731 [13].

Eugene Mahlon Field also received money from ConnectOregon - $4,103,461 for an air cargo facilities improvement project. Even so, its annual operational count has plunged by more than 50 percent, from over 161,000 in 1991 to 73,930 in 2009.

Total operations at Redmond, a recipient of two ConnectOregon grants - $1.5 Million for a cargo ramp and development project and $7.5 Million for a terminal expansion, tumbled from a high of 94,936 in 2007 to 55,706 in 2009.

Southwest Oregon Regional in North Bend, a recipient of $624,000 ConnectOregon for an air traffic control tower, peaked at 57,722 in 1999 before dropping to 32,376 in 2009. This facility is expected to decline even further to 21,036 annual operations by 2010.

Pendleton's Eastern Oregon Regional now logs less than half as many operations as it did in 1998 when it peaked at 41,214. By 2009 its annual operational count had fallen to 19,624. FAA forecasts expect this facility to drop to 12,079 by 2012.

Rogue Valley International in Medford is down from 94,007 total operations in 1992 to 44,465 in 2009. This facility received $4,760,000 from ConnectOregon for an air cargo expansion project.

Operations at Klamath Falls Airport have dropped from close to 84,000 in 1992 to 29,224 in 2009. This facility received $1 Million from ConnectOregon for a jet factory service center.

Astoria and Newport Airports' aspirations for commercial status were stymied by the loss of the $3.6 Million ConnectOregon SeaPort Airline subsidy, which was discontinued.

In addition to commercial facilities in the state, ConnectOregon and the FAA lavish millions on general aviation airports such as Hillsboro and Aurora - facilities that primarily serve private for-profit flight training schools and aviation businesses. Scappoose and Vernonia are also promoting unnecessary expansions.

Glut of Airports and Aviation Activity in Oregon

Oregon's entrenched system of aviation cronyism and irresponsible spending has led to excessive aviation activity and a glut of airports in Oregon. Per the Oregon Department of Aviation (ODA), as of 2008 there were 97 public use and over 350 private use airports for a combined total of 447 general aviation airports in Oregon [14] to serve the state's 5,732 pilots (5,173 registered pilots and 559 unregistered) [15]. This number, which represents one-sixth of one percent of the state's total population, translates into a ratio of 12.82 pilots to each GA airport in the state.

Compare these numbers to the ratio of public schools to children. The Oregon Blue Book states that Oregon operates 1,355 public schools for the 561,698 [16] kindergarten through twelfth grade students enrolled (almost 15% of the state’s population), a ratio of 415 students per school. Thus the proportion of airports per Oregon pilot exceeds the school to student ratio 32 times over.

Indeed, every dollar spent on aviation translates into less funding for job creation in the public sector where educators, health care providers, and social service workers are desperately needed.

Now is the time to contact your federal, state, and local officials. Tell them it's time to stop wasting scarce public resources by putting an immediate stop to unnecessary airport expansions.


[1] Wales, John H., from Salem Urban Development Department Airport ConnectOregon Amendment for Salem City Council Meeting. (9/26/11). pg. 2.

[2] Federal Aviation Administration Terminal Area Forecast Report website

[3] Salem Municipal Airport Yearly Activity Report 2010

[4] Salem Municipal Airport Monthly Activity Report October 2011

[5] Salem McNary Airport. Draft Master Plan Update (8/19/11). Pg 1-2

[6] Federal Aviation Administration Terminal Area Forecast Report website

[7] Ibid.

[8] Tobias, Lori. SeaPort Airlines Cancels service to Newport, Salem starting next Monday. Oregonian. (7/11/11).

[9] Wales, John H., from Salem Urban Development Department Airport ConnectOregon Amendment for Salem City Council Meeting. (9/26/11). pg. 1.

[10] Oregon Department of Transportation ConnectOregon website

[11] Portland International Airport Master Plan Update. (April 1993). Table A-11. pg. A-35.

[12] Portland International Airport Monthly Traffic Report December 2010

[13] Federal Aviation Administration Terminal Area Forecast Report website

[14] Oregon Department of Aviation Biennial Report 2006-2008. pg. 8.

[15] Ibid. pg 17.

[16]Oregon Blue Book website

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