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Airline cuts back mainline service.

Byline: Tim Christie The Register-Guard

A month ago, Eugene Airport officials threw a little party with cookies and punch to celebrate the return of United Airlines providing "mainline" service to San Francisco with Boeing 737s.

On Tuesday, Airport Director Tim Doll soberly announced that as of September, United would go back to flying smaller regional planes on the Eugene-San Francisco route due to the downturn in the nation's economy and skyrocketing fuel prices.

"It's extremely frustrating," Doll said. "It's a tough market right now."

Effective Sept. 1, United Airlines will go from four flights a day with 737s to six flights a day with the smaller, regional jets, for a net loss of about 50 seats a day, Doll said. United previously had been operating seven flights a day on the route with the smaller jets.

Doll also said Horizon Air will drop one of its four daily flights to Seattle in late June.

The United mainline service will still be in place, however, during the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials in late June and early July, when 1,200 athletes, 500 coaches and 1,100 members of the media are expected to converge on Eugene. That's especially important for one type of track athlete in particular - pole vaulters, whose poles can be carried only by the larger jets.

Doll said he knows of no other plans to reduce air service out of Eugene, but it's possible given the battering the airline industry is taking.

"No one knows what's going to happen," he said. "If fuel prices continue to climb, the industry is going to be in trouble." At leastfive regional airlines have gone out of business in recent months. Several of the national airlines are contemplating mergers.

United discontinued mainline service to Eugene in 2003 during a market downturn and replaced it with United Express service, which used 50- to 66-seat regional jets operated by SkyWest Airlines. To persuade United Airlines to bring back the big jets, the airport worked with the Eugene and Springfield chambers of commerce, the Convention & Visitors Association of Lane County Oregon and Lane Metro Partnership, an economic development agency.

Together, the groups offered a marketing and promotional incentive package to United worth $80,000 to $90,000. The airport put up $10,000 cash, plus a $14,000 telecom grant from the city of Eugene for cable advertising. The four other groups put up a total of $10,000. The remainder of the package was in the form of in-kind contributions such as a billboard advertisement.

The billboard can be seen on the road leading to the airport, and depicts a jet flying over the Golden Gate Bridge with the message, "United Mainline - Big Jets, Connecting You to the Bay Area and Beyond."

Dave Hauser, executive director of the Eugene Area Chamber of Commerce, said he was disappointed, although not surprised that United decided to end the mainline service out of Eugene.

"We always recognize our airport operates within a larger context of the airline industry," he said. "And certainly there are some pretty significant changes underway in the industry today with rising fuel costs and economic uncertainty."

The air development partners will continue to work for improved air service here, but Hauser confessed sometimes it feels like the community is taking one step forward and two steps back.

"Certainly it (is) fortunate we have been able to take those steps forward," he said. "Everytime you have a setback it's helpful to remind ourselves that we've made some great progress along the way."

Air service plays a key role in economic development, he said.

"Literally every single economic engine in our country - health care, higher education, manufacturing - they all have the need to get in and out of the community," he said. "Quality air service drives quality economic development. It's difficult to have one without the other."

The cutback is part of a broader cost-saving plan by United Airlines that will see it reduce its domestic capacity by 9 percent. The Chicago-based airline lost $542 million in the first quarter of 2008, driven mostly by a $618 million increase in fuel costs. United also is permanently removing 30 of its narrowbody aircraft from service.
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Title Annotation:City/Region; United going to smaller planes between Eugene and San Francisco in September
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Apr 30, 2008

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