Central Oregon’s strong, upwardly mobile population is attracting attention from smaller, boutique airlines that see business potential and are adding nonstop flights to the Redmond Airport.

The new flights on aha! ExpressJet Airlines and Avelo that were just announced, are direct, eliminating the need for connections and crowded airport hubs or long drives to larger airports. The new airlines joined Allegiant’s return to Redmond in 2019, when it announced it would fly from Redmond Airport to Las Vegas and Mesa, Arizona.

Attracting new airlines during the pandemic plays a role in keeping Central Oregon top of mind for airlines and travelers who are courted by the Central Oregon Air Service Team, a group that includes the airport, the Economic Development for Central Oregon, Visit Bend, Visit Central Oregon, and the Redmond and Bend chambers of commerce. Central Oregon is attractive to visitors, especially during the pandemic, because its outdoors lends itself to physical distancing.

“It’s a sign of the regions’ success to see new airlines and flights launching from Redmond Airport,” said Julia Theisen, Visit Central Oregon CEO, in an email. “Airlines are attracted to Redmond Airport for a number of reasons, including growth in the region by visitors and in-migration, airport fees that are affordable ... and the efforts we make to meet with our airline partners as often as possible to keep Central Oregon front of mind.”

In fiscal year 2021, which runs from July 2020 to June 2021, Deschutes County — the unincorporated resort areas like Tetherow, Eagle Crest, Pronghorn, Black Butte Ranch and Sunriver — collected $11.5 million in transient room taxes, a 51.9% increase over the previous year. In Bend, the transient room tax collection for fiscal year 2021 was $11.1 million, a 26.2% increase from the previous year.

Deschutes County collects an 8% transient room tax and Bend collects a 10.4% lodging tax for each night.

“What we’re seeing because of the pandemic and COVID-19 is there’s been a shift by smaller, boutique airlines to move into the Western outdoor market,” said Zach Bass, Redmond Airport director.

This past summer Redmond saw about as many passengers as it did before March 2020 when the pandemic caused the closure of businesses and travel as a way to curb the spread of the virus. In July 2019, 102,000 passengers passed through the airport, compared to July 2020 when a mere 37,000 came through. This July, however, there were 105,000 passengers in the Redmond Airport, Bass said.

There are seven airlines providing about 25 flights a day out of Redmond, Bass said. The number of flights tends to fluctuate depending on time of year. Carriers include Alaska Air, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Allegiant Airlines, Boutique Air, United Airlines and Avelo. Bass said the airport is working with American to see if it will operate direct flights from Redmond to Dallas that could start this spring.

Travis Christ, Avelo Airlines head of marketing, said that since May, the direct flights from Redmond to Burbank, California, three times a week have done well for the newcomer. The airline, which also launched flights in Medford and Eugene, has made a business plan out of flying from nonhub airports near large cities to popular visitor destinations, like Bend, Christ said.

Avelo uses 189-seat Boeing 737-800 aircraft out of Redmond, one of 17 destinations the airline offers across the Western United States. Additional destinations are being added. Fort Collins, Colorado, is being added this week and will go from New Haven, Connecticut to multiple destinations in Florida come November.

Launching a new airline isn’t easy, but it wasn’t nearly as difficult as Avelo anticipated. Pent up travel demand among visitors spurred travel in the United States since many international locations were closed due to COVID-19 restrictions, Christ said.“We’re the new way to Los Angeles,” Christ said in an interview. “People are eager to get out of the big, congested airports, with expensive parking and crowds.

“We want to serve these areas that have been underserved, and it was good fortune for us that a lot of the bigger city folks moved to these other areas, causing an influx of in-migration.”

The city of Redmond did offer Avelo $25,000 in marketing support, matching money the airline is spending to drum up interest among travelers.

Also starting in November is aha! by ExpressJet Airlines, the airline’s hotel and air leisure brand, that offers nonstop flights from the Reno-Tahoe to Redmond. The three -times -a -week direct flights avoid layovers and crowds. Choosing to fly to Redmond was easy as the destinations are similar, said Tim Sieber, head of aha! ExpressJet Airlines business unit.

Both destinations focus on outdoor activities. Both destinations have disposable income. Both destinations have a robust food and beer scene.

“It made sense to link the two destinations by an airplane,” Sieber said. “The two destinations are very similar, and the direct flight provides an opportunity to exchange people between two markets that share a lot of the same interests.”

With an eye on the travel data, ExpressJet said it recognized that Reno-Tahoe had a lot of visitors from Bend and Redmond who had to either drive or make a connection in Portland, Sieber said.

“We see an opportunity for providing direct flights that avoid time in airports and the potential exposure to COVID-19,”Sieber said. “We think people want that and they want to go to less crowded places for activities. Clearly there’s a lot of pent -up demand for short trips.”

Reporter: 541-633-2117,

sroig@bendbulletin.com

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