Passengers can no longer wait to the last minute to board SeaPort Airlines. Some customers flying from Eastern Oregon Regional Airport, Pendleton, this week reported airline staff told them to show up 30 to 45 minutes before a flight leaves.

Timothy Sieber, SeaPort's executive vice president, said that change is part of a bigger move -- SeaPort's new deal with Alaska Airlines that allows customers to buy tickets for connector flights.

This is SeaPort's first interline electronic ticking agreement, and it went live March 24 with the company's new online reservation system. Claire James, SeaPort director of marketing, said someone flying from Los Angles to Pendleton, for example, used to visit separate websites for airlines and build separate itineraries for each leg. Now, customers can visit SeaPort's website and book their flights all the way through.

Travel websites, such as Travelocity or Priceline, also show the connector information. So the interline deal gives a visibility boost to smaller communities, she said, such as Pendleton.

While arriving 45 minutes before liftoff is the recommendation, Sieber said at least 30 minutes prior would get the job done. The extra time allows SeaPort to check bags through to a passenger's final destination.

"But if a customer shows up 20 minutes before departure, we're not going to turn them away," he said.

Still, the new rule threw some for a loop, much like in September 2012, when passengers on flights between Pendleton and Portland began having to go through Portland International Airport's main terminal and security checkpoints. That was part of a plan to connect SeaPort flights from Eastern Oregon Regional Airport to a larger airline at Portland International.

Flying from Pendleton to Portland takes an hour and 20 minutes, according to SeaPort's online reservation system. Add the 45 minutes preflight wait, and you're at more than two hours. Driving from Pendleton to Portland take about three hours. But Sieber was confident the airline will not lose customers.

"When you sit back and think about what you have to pay to park in Portland, our rates are still a great value for customers," he said.

SeaPort flies 22 times a week between Pendleton and Portland -- four times a day, Monday through Friday, then once each Saturday and Sunday. The airline is changing some of its flight times starting in April, but the overall number of flights will stay the same.

Federal Aviation Administration information shows SeaPort had 4,898 boardings in 2010 in Pendleton, 4,952 in 2011 and 5,066 in 2012, the last year for which the agency has data. That's about 1-2 percent growth a year. Sieber said the Alaska Airlines deal should lead to more passengers traveling in and out of Pendleton.

Pendleton was SeaPort's first foray into the essential air service program, a federal subsidy to ensure smaller communities have access to scheduled air service in the wake of the 1978 Airline Deregulation Act. SeaPort receives $1,834,708 a year for a four-year contract, which began Jan. 1, 2013.

Without the taxpayer help, SeaPort would lose money in Pendleton. With the subsidy, SeaPort makes about a 5 percent profit, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation order that selected SeaPort.

SeaPort was struggling this past winter. Boardings in December and January were down, according to the Pendleton Airport Commission. Bad weather led to canceled flights, Sieber said, and that puts a pinch on the bottom line because the airline does not receive the subsidy for canceled flights.

But with summer approaching, Sieber said, the company should soon start seeing the benefits of the interline deal.

SeaPort also invested in a new flight management system, Sieber said, that makes operations more efficient. And the company is working on a couple more interline agreements. All of this, Sieber said, is about SeaPort building the foundation for its future growth.

Contact Phil Wright at pwright@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0833.

This story originally appeared in East Oregonian.

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