by Cara Gardner

Think it takes a long time to fly from Spokane to a major airport hub? Try starting your journey from North Idaho. Especially after Sept. 11, when security measures have added time onto every leg of travel, commuters starting from rural areas have to tack hours onto their trips.

"I can't very effectively drive to the airport, go through security in Spokane, get to the meetings I need to [in Seattle], and then go through security [at SeaTac] in one day," says Ron Nova, a Sandpoint businessman and chairman of the Sandpoint Air Service Committee (SASC). "That's one long day!"

Nova explains that to get to a 10 am meeting in Seattle, he'd have to leave his home in Sandpoint at around 5 am.

But the conundrum of North Idaho air travel will soon be obsolete because of a few "air activists" and lots of community support. The SASC contracted with a small Idaho-based airline company, McCall Air, to run direct commuter flights from Sandpoint to Boise and Seattle. Starting in May, McCall Air will run a nine-passenger plane between the cities four days a week.

"I look at this from a business standpoint -- it will also really grow to complement recreation and tourism," Nova says.

If you think Sandpoint's small airport will begin screening passengers in the same way as other airports around the country, however, think again. Dan Scott, president of McCall Air, says passengers on McCall's flights can check in as late as 15 minutes before the plane leaves the ground. For small airlines, like the nine-passenger plane that will fly commuters out of Sandpoint, the safety guidelines haven't changed since Sept. 11 -- mostly because there weren't many to begin with.

"Security requirements are much less," Nova says of the flights. "I don't want to make it sound insecure, but you're with the pilot and co-pilot on these small flights. They're right there, and it's just very easily handled."

Indeed, according to the Transportation Security Administration, airline companies like McCall don't have to follow the same security measures as do major commercial airlines and airports. For instance, there's no baggage check or passenger screening. No one shows identification or walks through a metal detector. Scott says one reason the TSA and Federal Aviation Administration don't require small planes to conduct the same kind of safety checks is because it's much easier for pilots to control and monitor nine passengers than, say, 220 of them.

"The thinking behind the TSA and FAA's [lack of regulations] is it's so much more of an intimate setting," Scott explains. "The pilot is handling the luggage and the people as they get on and off. It's much easier to identify a suspicious person when it's two pilots and nine passengers."

Scott adds that McCall Air's pilots have to complete the same background, drug and alcohol and psychological testing that all pilots who fly commercial planes.

"We do background checks on the pilots, and when folks buy a ticket, there is a process in place in which we're looking at [their names] as well," says Jennifer Marty, public affairs officer for TSA's Northwest region. "But they don't walk through a regular checkpoint to be screened."

Avoiding the hassles of security, as well as the drive from North Idaho to Spokane International Airport, is crucial to many commuters, who were willing to put plenty of dollars and effort into getting the Sandpoint air service off the ground.

Nova is also the vice president of Harbor Resorts and a member of the Bonner County Airport Advisory Board. With the help of the Greater Sandpoint Chamber of Commerce (GSCC), Nova and SASC have used their network to raise enough money for the air service in just three years.

"Multiple local businesses, including Lighthouse, Hidden Lake Golf Course and Schweitzer Ski Resort, drummed up $16,000 and helped fund the initial research to study the market," Nova says. "What we accomplished in three years, it takes a community five years or more to achieve."

Part of why the SASC was able to get a contract into place so quickly was because of its funding plan. Nova and his colleagues solicited routine travelers from Seattle, Boise and Sandpoint for a pledge drive. Interested commuters pledged dollars toward guaranteed pre-purchased ticket vouchers, which can be used up to 18 months after purchase.

"A lot of people in the Seattle market are second-home owners or come over to see family," Nova explains. "So this is good for local tourism and all the local businesses. While we won't be moving a lot of people at the onset, there's definitely an interest in people coming to our community and not just business travel away from our community."

Sandpoint has a small airport for private and charter planes. Nova says Bonner County plans to work with McCall air on setting up a new ticket counter and waiting area for the commercial flights. McCall Air has 14 aircraft, all of which are currently used for charter flights into the backcountries of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.

"In the last couple of years, we've expanded into traditional city-to-city charter flights and are now looking to expand into scheduled commuter service," says Dan Scott, president of McCall Air. "We're keeping our eyes open for growth in small communities around the Pacific Northwest."

Publication date: 03/04/04

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