Modesto Airport pledge drive about to take off

kvaline@modbee.comJanuary 6, 2014 

Businesses and other air travelers soon will be asked to show their support for restarting passenger service with Los Angeles.

Modesto’s airport consultant is launching a drive Monday to collect pledges from companies, residents and others that they would spend $1 million on tickets for daily flights to and from Modesto and Los Angeles International airports.

The pledges are not binding, but they would demonstrate the region’s commitment to the service. Sixel Consulting Group – the city’s consultant – says it has an understanding with a major carrier that if it can collect the $1 million in pledges, the carrier will start the Los Angeles flights.

The flights could begin as soon as this summer under the best of circumstances, said Greg Atkin, an air service development consultant with Sixel. The consulting firm has declined to name the carrier.

Atkin and Katie Jones, Sixel’s marketing and public relations manager, spoke before the City Council’s Economic Development Committee on Monday about the pledge drive. The two also asked city officials to spread the word about the drive. “We’re very committed to this,” Jones said. “We’ve seen this succeed in other (communities).”

The seven-week pledge drive ends Feb. 28. Jones will contact local businesses such as E.&J. Gallo Winery and speak before chambers of commerce and other groups to solicit support. Information and pledge forms will be available online starting Monday. People also can help by donating to a foundation that makes children’s wishes come true. Those donations – used by the foundation to buy airline tickets to fulfill wishes – count toward the $1 million.

SkyWest Airlines provides the only regularly scheduled commercial flights at Modesto Airport – three daily flights to and from San Francisco. City officials say those flights often are delayed because of bad weather and construction projects at San Francisco International Airport, causing Modesto travelers to miss their connecting flights.

City officials say Southern California is the top destination for Modesto Airport passengers. Modesto also sees its airport as an economic benefit for the region; reliable air service can help keep and recruit businesses.

In 2006, Modesto helped persuade SkyWest Airlines to restart Los Angeles service by offering up to $550,000 in payments from a federal grant if the route were not profitable. The flights often were full, but SkyWest dropped the service in 2008. Before SkyWest’s service, the last flights to Los Angeles were in 1992.

Atkin and Jones said carriers are reluctant to start new routes unless they receive help to offset the losses they expect in the initial years.

The carrier considering the Modesto-to-Los Angeles flights normally would expect to lose about $500,000 during each of the first two years of service without financial assistance, according to Sixel. Modesto cannot provide that assistance, so the city and its consultant are using the pledge drive to demonstrate that the airline wouldn’t lose money in those initial years.

Atkin and Jones said the service to Los Angeles would consist of two daily flights on a 50-seat jet. The flight would take about one hour, 20 minutes. SkyWest flies a 28-passenger turboprop plane to San Francisco.

Under its incentive-based agreement with the city, Sixel is not getting paid for the pledge drive and other work for the Los Angeles flights. Sixel gets paid only if it secures the flights. In that event, Sixel would receive $2 for every person who gets on or off a plane in Modesto during the first two years.

Sixel Consulting has estimated it would receive $120,000 annually based on two daily flights at about 80 percent capacity.

A January 2013 city report estimated the potential annual revenue for the airport at more than $243,000. City officials also have said the Los Angeles flights are important because they would help keep the airport’s annual passenger count at more than 10,000, which is the threshold for the airport to receive $1 million in annual federal funding for capital projects.

City officials have said funding drops to $150,000 if the passenger count falls to less than 10,000. Modesto expects the passenger count for 2013 to be about 11,000, reflecting the steady decline of several years.

For more information about the proposed air service and the pledge drive, email Jones at katie.jones@sixelconsulting.com.

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

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