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Walden pushes to return air service to Klamath Falls

KLAMATH FALLS — U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., and others in Oregon's congressional delegation are pushing forward with a bill to return TSA screening services and commercial air service to the Klamath Basin.

During a visit to the Crater Lake-Klamath Regional Airport Friday, Walden said they had an agreement with both Republican and Democratic leaders of the House Homeland Security Committee and that legislation would go before the full committtee on March 23.

A favorable vote by the Homeland Security Committee would send the bill out of committee and on its way to the House floor, where it could reach the Senate by April, said the 2nd District congressman.

“It should go swiftly as it now has full bipartisan support,” Walden added.

“This is the first step but it's a major step to get to the point where both sides are in full agreement.”

The bill, Treating Small Airports with Fairness Act of 2016 or TSA Fairness Act of 2016, would force TSA to restore screening services to small airports that meet several criteria. The lack of a TSA presence at the Klamath airport has blocked the return of passenger service.

An airport that qualifies under the act must have lost air service since 2013 and must have a willing airline to provide commercial air service. Klamath Falls meets both criteria, as air service ended in June 2014 and Peninsula Airways, known as PenAir, remains committed to providing service here.

The bill is also sponsored by Oregon Democratic Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden and Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore. Other congressional co-sponsors include members from Washington, Wyoming, Utah, Illinois, Texas and Utah.

Walden said leaders on both sides of the political aisle found common ground on the screening issue, as there are other cities across the nation facing the same scenario as Klamath Falls.

Walden didn't mince words about his feelings toward the TSA's reaction to a request to return to Klamath Falls.

“The decision by TSA in the past has lacked common sense,” Walden said.

“We found a solution, I think, to this problem and I think it's very important to the community, very important for economic development, very important for growth, for all the other kind of services.”

Col. Wes French, vice commander of the 173rd Fighter Wing, said the lack of passenger service also could threaten his unit's presence at Kingsley Field in Klamath County, where the Oregon Air National Guard Unit is based.

“We're the only F-15 training unit in the world now,” French said. “It's critical for us to get these folks in and out of town because if the other bases around the world say they can't get to our simulators, then somebody will build it somewhere else … we can't afford to lose that in Klamath Falls. Everything we do like this is really critical to keeping that mission here.”

Airport Manager John Barsalou said the lack of passenger service has resulted in reduced financial support from the Federal Aviation Administration.

“Without the passengers, we do lose the FAA grant dollars,” Barsalou said.

“With 10,000 passengers a year, the FAA will give us $1 million in airport improvement program dollars. Without the 10,000 passengers, it goes down to $150,000, which is where we're at right now."

Klamath Falls Mayor Todd Kellstrom assured Walden the area has supported up to 30,000 passengers in the past and that it could support that many once again.

“I'm ready to be the first passenger,” said Klamath Falls resident Renee Valena, a disabled military veteran in the audience who said she cannot drive long distances.

“I'll be right behind you in that line,” Walden said back to her. “Not that I don't like driving down here.”

Walden said he's flown with PenAir, and that he'd like to see them provide commercial air service to the Klamath Basin.

PenAir remains committed to coming to Klamath Falls, said John Barsalou, airport manager.

“For the airport, the use of this beautiful facility we will get back, that's something we're looking forward to,” Barsalou said, as attendees looked on from seats in the airport's terminal.

“That's what the airport is for, and that's what we want to try to use it for, and getting that service back is critical for that.”