Modesto has reached a major milestone in its campaign to restart passenger air service with Southern California.
The city announced Friday that it and its airport consultant have collected the $1 million in pledges that an airline requested before it would start nonstop flights between the Modesto and Los Angeles International airports.
The pledges are for the purchase of tickets. They are not binding, but they demonstrate the region’s commitment to the flights and reassure the airline that it would not lose money during the initial years of service.
Officials believe the flights will be an economic boon for the region, from helping retain and recruit businesses to bringing more visitors here for athletic tournaments, conventions and other events. It also means local travelers don’t have to drive to airports in Sacramento and the Bay Area to catch flights.
“I’m quite confident we’ve met our obligation, and that means a jet service between Modesto and LAX will be occurring, and I’m so elated,” Mayor Garrad Marsh said. He said the pledge drive is another example of the good that happens when the community works together.
Officials have said the new service would consist of two daily nonstop flights in 50-seat passenger jets.
Modesto is working with Oregon-based Sixel Consulting Group. Owner Mark Sixel has said he has an “oral understanding” with a carrier that if his firm and the city collected the pledges, it would start the flights. He and other Sixel officials have declined to name the carrier, other than to say it’s a major airline.
“We are not at liberty to disclose a carrier or a timeline for the service, as those items are still in negotiation,” said Jack Penning, Sixel’s director of market analysis, in an email Friday.
He said the next steps include briefing the carrier on the results of the pledge drive and conducting a Federal Aviation Administration-required environmental assessment of the airport for jet service. He said the assessment will take four to six months. “Assuming the FAA finds no problem with the assessment, then the service could begin,” Penning wrote.
Sixel Consulting has an incentive-based contract with Modesto. That means it does not get paid unless it lands the flights. Once the flights start, Sixel receives $2 for two years for every passenger who gets on a jet bound for Los Angeles or lands in a jet that departed from Los Angeles.
SkyWest Airlines provides the only regularly scheduled commercial flights from Modesto Airport – three daily flights to and from San Francisco in 28-seat turboprop planes. Modesto officials say those flights often are delayed at San Francisco International Airport, causing Modesto travelers to miss their connecting flights.
Marsh said those delayed flights result in many local travelers using airports in the Bay Area and elsewhere. He said the Los Angeles flights, with their better reliability, should lure more local travelers and their wallets back to Modesto Airport.
Modesto officials say another reason for the Los Angeles flights is that Southern California is the top destination for Modesto Airport travelers. SkyWest offered Los Angeles service from 2006 to 2008. Previous Los Angeles flights were in 1992.
SkyWest officials did not respond Friday to a request for comment.
But Penning wrote in his email that the Los Angeles flights “are not positioned as a replacement for service to San Francisco. We are hopeful SkyWest will be continuing service to ... San Francisco.”
Cities offer airlines financial incentives to start new routes. Modesto helped persuade SkyWest to launch the Los Angeles service by offering up to $550,00 in payments from a federal grant if the route was not profitable. But Modesto did not have any money this time to attract an airline.
So Modesto and Sixel turned to the pledge drive, which Sixel officials have said they have used successfully in other communities. Modesto’s pledge drive was slated to run Jan. 13 to Feb. 28 but was extended to March 31 after getting off to a slow start.
Modesto, Sixel and others teamed up for a Wednesday event at Modesto Airport to solicit more pledges and jump-start the campaign. Marsh praised Councilman John Gunderson for bringing representatives from travel agencies that book flights to Fiji and India. Marsh said the people Gunderson brought allowed Modesto to reach the $1 million in pledges about two weeks sooner.
“This is as good as getting a factory or another food processor in town,” Gunderson said about the flights’ economic impact. “It’s worth that much to the local economy. It’s not the whole answer, but it certainly will help.”
The city said Friday that the campaign has raised $1,074,646 in pledges. Marsh said he’d like the pledges to top $1.5 million when the campaign ends March 31.