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Portland-based startup takes to the sky

On a typical morning, Seattle-bound passengers wait no more than 10 minutes from the time they walk out on the tarmac to the time the wheels on the plane are up.
On a typical morning, Seattle-bound passengers wait no more than 10 minutes from the time they walk out on the tarmac to the time the wheels on the plane are up.Sam Leinen

Kent Craford doesn’t look like an airline CEO — or a crazy person. Clean-shaven, 32 years old and dressed in khakis and a polo shirt, the co-founder of SeaPort Airlines sits in his office at Portland International Airport talking about the state of air travel and insists, “This is the perfect time to launch a new airline.”

He makes that claim even though he’s aware of the impact of high fuel prices, the failure of other recent startups (e.g., Skybus) and the ongoing crisis that constitutes the U.S. airline industry. Never mind that the nation’s biggest carriers are in full-blown retreat; according to Craford, the world is ready for a new airline with a two-city route map, three nine-seat planes and a different approach.

Really, he’s not crazy. In fact, he makes a pretty convincing case for a saner approach to air travel.

Small planes, fewer hassles
The concept is enticingly simple: to provide regularly scheduled air service between Portland and Seattle that bypasses the crowds in the main terminal, the hassles at security and the wasted time inherent in the current system. Launched on June 30, SeaPort intends to get travelers “downtown to downtown” in 90 minutes, saving them as much as three hours roundtrip.

The company operates a trio of Pilatus PC-12 aircraft, fuel-efficient turbo-props with pressurized cabins, two pilots and seats for nine passengers. Like corporate jets, they’re regulated under FAA’s general aviation rules, which means they can fly into smaller airports where TSA screening isn’t required. Translation: Instead of getting to the airport the recommended 90 minutes before departure, passengers can show up 15 minutes before takeoff, check in and be on their way.

In Portland, SeaPort operates out of the business aviation area of Portland International Airport rather than the main terminal. In Seattle, it skips Sea-Tac altogether, flying in and out of King County International Airport, better known as Boeing Field, where crowds are non-existent, parking is free and downtown is less than six miles away (vs. 14 from Sea-Tac). With no crowds, no screening and a 45-minute flight time, it all adds up to less time and more convenience.

For Craford, a former lobbyist who regularly drove I-5 between Portland and Seattle (typically a three-hour trip), the idea of avoiding both the highway and the hurry-up-and-wait nature of commercial air service was a natural: “It just didn’t make sense to me that it was a three-hour trip by car, yet could still be a three-hour trip by plane. If the plane can’t beat the car between Portland and Seattle, what’s the point?”

Paying a premium for quality time
On a typical morning, Seattle-bound passengers pull up to the company’s Portland office, hand over their car keys — valet parking is $18 per day — and take a seat in the waiting area. A few minutes later, the pilots walk in, announce the flight is boarding and lead the group out the door to the waiting plane. It’s generally no more than 10 minutes from walk out to wheels up.

Once onboard, it’s obvious there’s no beverage service or lavatory, but you can use personal electronics throughout the flight and the single-seat configuration means that every passenger gets both an aisle and a window seat. “It’s pretty cool,” says Steve Reidy, principal at a Portland engineering company and a first-time SeaPort passenger. “You can see through the cockpit and watch the approach. It’s less ‘closed off’ than the usual flying experience.”

Sam Leinen

The service is clearly targeted toward business travelers. Starting with 16 (one-way) flights per day, the company recently expanded to 20 midweek and hopes to build off-peak and weekend business by promoting tax-free shopping in Portland and Mariners games in Seattle.

To that end, the company recently began offering one-way fares of $99 (plus taxes and fees) on select flights, compared to a base fare of $149. By comparison, Horizon Airlines, the main carrier on the Portland-Seattle run, offers fares ranging from $79 with advance purchase to $149 for walk-ups. “We’re usually a little more expensive,” says Craford, “but we’re going for people for whom time is money.”

Kory Kimball, managing director at a Portland consulting company and a frequent SeaPort passenger, puts it another way: “I have two kids at home. I don’t want to waste a single minute at the airport.”

A smart choice for short hops
Obviously, the SeaPort model won’t work in all markets, and the service won’t appeal to everyone. (Baggage, for example, is limited to 35 pounds.) But for short-haul trips, Craford insists the value proposition is sound: “All we’ve done is right-sized the operation with the route.”

Which, it turns out, is why he believes the time is right for a new airline, especially one that can avoid the hassles of an overloaded system rife with delays, add-on fees and security snafus. “Besides,” he adds, “it’s not like the old model is working all that well.”