Modesto admits prospects for commercial flights dim

A SkyWest plane takes off from the Modesto City-County Airport.
A SkyWest plane takes off from the Modesto City-County Airport. Modesto Bee file

Modesto could give up its FAA certificate that allows it to have commercial passenger flights, a move that saves the city money, comes 3 1/2 years after the last commercial flight landed here, and is an acknowledgement that these flights will not be returning soon.

City officials are recommending Modesto surrender what is called its Part 139 Airport Operating Certificate. A city report says that will save the airport as much as $138,000 annually because it will eliminate expenses associated with the certificate.

Modesto already reduced some of its expenses when the Federal Aviation Administration – at the city's request – placed the certificate on inactive status in February 2016, according to the report. The report says Modesto can ask the FAA to reinstate the certificate if commercial flights become viable again.

But that could take a lot time.

"The regional airline industry has experienced an exodus of air carriers from smaller markets like Modesto," the report states. "... Industry experts estimate it may take many years before small regional markets might become profitable enough to attract scheduled commercial air services."

City officials will ask the City Council's Economic Development Committee on Wednesday to endorse this recommendation and forward it to the council for approval.

The airport has not had passenger flights since June 2014, when SkyWest Airlines ended its daily flights between Modesto and San Francisco, citing "poor performance in the market."

The flights were subject to delays and cancellations because of fog and other problems at San Francisco International Airport, causing passengers to miss their connecting flights.

This is the first time since the 1980s that Modesto has not had commercial passenger service, according to Modesto Bee archives. City officials have said the service is critical because it helps with the region's economic development efforts and is a convenience for local residents who now drive to the Bay Area or Sacramento to catch a flight.

The city has contacted other airlines to provide commercial flights but without success.

Airport Manager Mark Germanowski said Modesto is among about 50 regional airports across the nation that have lost commercial air service. He said the reasons include a pilot shortage brought on by requiring more training hours for new pilots and older ones retiring and airlines focusing on large hub airports at the expense of smaller airports.

Germanowski said he will continue to follow industry trends and talk with industry colleagues to make sure Modesto does not miss any opportunities for commercial air service.

"I truly believe it will come back," he said about the flights. "This is just where we are in the industry right now. I can't see it not coming back. There are too many markets. There are too many people who want to fly."

He said Modesto Airport would be designated by the FAA as a regional general aviation airport without its Part 139 certificate. He said the airport is doing well, with about 160 private aircraft and about eight businesses -- including a flight school -- based there. He said the airport has nearly 140 hangars and all but a few are rented.

The committee meets at 2 p.m. in room 2008 on the second floor of Tenth Street Place, 1010 10th St. The meeting is open to the public.