Modesto tries to rustle up support for LA flights

kvaline@modbee.comMay 26, 2013 

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BART AH YOU/bahyou@modbee.com - Airplane arrives at the Modesto Airport, Thursday afternoon. December 22, 2011

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  • ABOUT THE REPORTER
    alternate text Kevin Valine
    Title: Reporter
    Coverage areas: City of Modesto and nonprofits
    Bio: Kevin Valine has been a copy editor and reporter at The Bee since January 2006. He's worked at the Reno Gazette-Journal, Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune and Paradise Post as a reporter and copy editor. He's a graduate of San Jose State.
    Recent stories written by Kevin
    E-mail: kvaline@modbee.com

Modesto officials are meeting with local governments, chambers of commerce and businesses in Stanislaus County and the foothills to drum up support for passenger air service to Los Angeles.

City officials have met with at least a half-dozen airlines about establishing service between Modesto Airport and Los Angeles International Airport. The only commercial flights now are to and from San Francisco International Airport, a route that has seen a drop in passengers and suffers from unreliable service.

Modesto has been trying to get Los Angeles flights for a while, but the issue surfaced last week during workshops on the city's 2013-14 budget, which starts July 1.

Mayor Garrad Marsh said airlines are reluctant to come here without a financial assurance that they would not lose money as they established the new service.

These assurances often take the form of what is called a minimum revenue guarantee, in which a city makes up the difference between what an airline projects its revenue will be versus what it is.

In 2006, Modesto helped persuade SkyWest Airlines to restart Los Angeles service by offering up to $550,000 in payments from a federal transportation grant if the route were not profitable.

The flights were often full, but SkyWest dropped the service in 2008, saying Modesto's price-sensitive market made the route less than profitable. Before that effort, there had not been a direct flight to Los Angeles since 1992.

$1 million guarantee?

Marsh said at the budget workshops that it could cost as much as $1 million to guarantee an airline would not lose money; that's money the city does not have.

But it might be able to get financial help from local cities, chambers of commerce and businesses to land service to and from Los Angeles. Public Works Director Dennis Turner said that Modesto sees its airport as an economic benefit for the entire region. Reliable air service can help keep and recruit businesses.

SkyWest offers the only commercial flights at Modesto Airport. In recent years, it has cut the number of daily flights to San Francisco from five to four and then three as its passenger boardings have declined. Passenger boardings have dropped every year since 2007 and were 15,905 last year.

Marsh estimated at the budget hearing that SkyWest's flights are half full.

Turner said a major problem is SkyWest flights are delayed about 28 percent of the time because of bad weather and construction projects at San Francisco International Airport. Because of its proximity to the Bay Area, Modesto flights are canceled or delayed to accommodate flights already in the air.

The flight delays are critical because it means Modesto fliers miss their connecting flights in San Francisco to their final destinations.

"That's one that's killing us," Turner said. "They don't make their connections."

Cindy Vesperman is one of those who has been affected.

"I used to fly to SFO, but frequent delays caused problems, and then fewer and fewer departure options. It was also more cost-effective than driving in, but not anymore," she wrote in response to a question posed on The Bee's Facebook page. "I would consider connecting flights at LAX if the price was right and flights were at convenient times."

Service to Los Angeles is crucial because Southern California is the top destination for passengers flying out of Modesto Airport.

"I would absolutely use the direct flight to LA," Samuel Garrett posted on The Bee's Facebook page. "Just as often, I have family and friends that would come see me more often if there was a direct flight."

Turner said SkyWest officials have told the city they are committed to providing the San Francisco flights, but said the city received a "lukewarm response" from SkyWest about the Los Angeles service.

"We're still talking about it with them," he said. "But we do not see them as the most interested candidate."

A SkyWest spokeswoman said in an email: "In regards to your question about LAX, we're open to discussing alternative routes or options with the community."

But Turner said the city's talks with a couple of other airlines look promising.

Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at kvaline@modbee.com or (209) 578-2316.


MODESTO BOARDINGS

2004: 21,574

2005: 20,557

2006: 38,127

2007: 51,587

2008: 37,825

2009: 26,783

2010: 24,334

2011: 19,163

2012: 15,905

SkyWest offered flights to Los Angeles from June 2006 to June 2008. Otherwise, the boardings were all to San Francisco.

Source: Modesto Airport


TOP DESTINATIONS

1. Southern California — 3,600 passengers

2. Chicago — 1,890 passengers

3. San Francisco (unknown connecting flights) — 1,790 passengers

4. Washington, D.C. — 1,400 passengers

5. Seattle — 1,230 passengers

This is for air travelers departing from Modesto in a 12-month period. City officials believe nearly all San Francisco destination passengers took connecting flights to other locales.

Source: City of Modesto

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