ATWATER -- Reno could be just 30 minutes and $89 away, starting in July.
That's when Vision Airlines plans to start taking off from Castle Airport's runways with daily flights to Reno and North Las Vegas. The Merced County Board of Supervisors OK'd the county's agreement with Vision at its Tuesday meeting.
Now, Vision must submit routes and schedules to the Federal Aviation Administration and Department of Transportation for approval, said Warren Kaplan, Vision director of business development. Once that clears, the North Las Vegas-based carrier will begin Castle's first regularly scheduled passenger flights.
Vision will start accepting reservations for the flights May 31 at visionairlines.com, Kaplan said. The one-way fare to North Las Vegas will be $119, with discounts for seniors, children and Chamber of Commerce members.
The board cheered Vision's arrival at Tuesday's meeting, with several supervisors calling the deal "a long time coming."
Supervisor Deidre Kelsey, who was appointed to the board in 1995, remembered that one of her first official acts was to lower the flag at Castle when the Air Force decommissioned the base. Since then, the county has poured money and resources into transforming the base into a commercially viable airport. Earlier this month, Castle received FAA approval to host passenger flights.
"To have you come in with your air service really means a great deal to the county," Kelsey told Kaplan.
But Rich Basart, a community member in the audience, raised concerns about the deal, questioning how much taxpayer money had been spent to lure Vision to Castle.
Vision hasn't received any payments, incentives or subsidies from the county, said spokesman Mark Hendrickson. The county has spent money to promote Castle as a facility, but none of those dollars has been used to advertise Vision.
Basart also questioned how Vision's plan could succeed, with Mesa Airlines already providing flights to Las Vegas out of Merced Municipal Airport. "I can't see how a second (airline) is going to survive," he said.
Kaplan said Vision had studied the Merced market last year, when it applied for the federal subsidy that funds Merced's passenger air service. (Vision did not win the subsidy.) Kaplan said his consultants had concluded that Merced residents are "vastly underserved" when it comes to passenger air service.
He added that Vision will use a bigger, faster plane than Mesa does -- a 30-seat jet instead of a 19-seat propeller plane. Unlike Mesa's aircraft, Vision's planes will be equipped with a bathroom and a flight attendant.
Vision's agreement with the county is for three years. If flights at Castle succeed, the airline could add Bay Area and Southern California destinations to its roster, Kaplan said. Vision also is negotiating with major carriers about forming partnerships that would allow passengers to book connecting flights through Reno and check bags to their final destination at Castle Airport.