SOUTH COAST — The popular twice-weekly nonstop flights between North Bend and Denver over the summer months out of Southwest Oregon Regional Airport (OTH) are in the third and final year of their initial trial period with United Airlines, but the flights’ future is currently up in the air.
“We don’t really know yet if it will continue in 2018,” said James Turner, director of projects at Bandon Dunes. “We are hopeful it will.”
The flights are made possible due to a contract with United and Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, as well as a grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation.
"We received a $550,000 grant from USDOT to subsidize the Denver route over three years," said Jennifer Groth, the airport public information officer. "Bandon Dunes Golf Resort signed a contract with United Airlines to guarantee the route for that time period (with) up to $1 million."
According to Groth, the grant covered $214,763 for the first year the flights were offered, while Bandon Dunes paid $64,441.
In year two, the grant covered $306,561 and Bandon Dunes paid $91,984.
There is $28,676 left to spend from the USDOT grant for 2017, the third consecutive year United has offered the seasonal flights.
"For local residents, it's an easier, more convenient way to fly east for summer vacations," Groth said. "That can be the challenge of living on the West Coast: it takes a day to get anywhere on the East Coast so this could make that an easier trip. And it obviously helps with the golfers that want to come to our area to utilize Bandon Dunes."
Currently, the airport offers flights to Denver through connections via San Francisco and Portland.
Michael Chupka, director of communications for Bandon Dunes, said the new direct flights help facilitate tourism for Oregon’s South Coast.
“It’s a win-win for all parties. We’ve been seeing momentum as far as number of seats that have been sold over the past two years,” he said. “It’s a great option — not only for Bandon Dunes and the golfers coming in here — but the community in general.
“We’re a little isolated here. It’s part of the charm and part of the struggle. At the same time, there’s always a need to help improve air service into the South Coast and having access now to Denver is great for our golfers.”
According to Groth, the resort's support helps eliminate several challenges that could hamstring flight options for the airport.
"We certainly appreciate their help in maintaining the economic viability of this route," she said.
Turner noted that the area was lucky to be able to have any flights with one of the “big three” — United, American and Southwest — airlines.
“The fact we‘ve been able to get that and keep it for three years is a nice thing to have and we’d like to keep it going but there’s a lot of moving parts: it has to be approved by United, the airport and our owner if we are going to continue,” Turner said, adding resort officials would discuss the matter internally in the fall.
“Ultimately, it’s up to United if they want to continue that route,” he added.
The airline did not return requests seeking comment by the time this article was published.
Groth said that small regional airports occasionally need to subsidize routes, often through some combination of federal, state and local funding and business partnerships.
“If the Denver flight continues to grow in demand, the airport will need less funding to ensure the route continues to be available to our customers,” she said. “It is difficult to predict whether the growth will reach a point where a subsidy is no longer necessary.”
And growth, while far from staggering, is steady.
During the first year of the Denver flight, 2,375 passengers utilized the new service.
In 2016, the second year, 2,683 passengers used the flight.
Figures for this year are not yet available, Groth said.
The airport’s executive director, Theresa Cook reiterated the importance of the route and OTH’s commitment to continue the service.
“Our partnership with Bandon Dunes Golf Resort and the $550,000 grant the airport obtained through USDOT to bring the seasonal Denver flight to our region provides important commercial air service for people who live here and for those who would like to visit,” she said. “Commercial flights are essential to the transportation infrastructure that is the foundation of our local economy; the Coos County Airport District will continue working with Bandon Dunes and will re-apply for federal funding to maintain and grow our service.”