Business

SkyWest ending Modesto-Los Angeles flights in June, after two years

Sky West Airlines is stopping its service from Modesto to Los Angeles.  (Bart Ah You/The Modesto Bee)
Sky West Airlines is stopping its service from Modesto to Los Angeles. (Bart Ah You/The Modesto Bee) Modesto Bee

SkyWest Airlines will discontinue United Express round-trip flights between Modesto and Los Angeles at the end of June, the company and airport officials confirmed Wednesday.

Citing high fuel prices and insufficient revenue from the four daily flights out of Modesto Airport, SkyWest informed airport officials about ending the flights this week.

Amber Hunter, a spokeswoman for St. George, Utah-based SkyWest, said the airline was evaluating all its flights to see which ones made financial sense to continue.

"Modesto to Los Angeles hasn't been a profitable route for us," she said. "The load factors are pretty good, but Modesto is just a price-sensitive market."

Hunter said fuel prices have affected all airlines in recent weeks. The cost of a barrel of oil was $105.90 on Wednesday and peaked at $112 last week.

As oil pushed higher, propelling aviation fuel prices to record levels, many carriers have cut domestic capacity and moved planes to international routes, where ticket prices and profits are higher.

Airport Manager Jerome Thiele said the Modesto-Los Angeles flights were consistently full, but SkyWest wasn't satisfied with the revenue from those flights.

When SkyWest raised prices recently, Thiele said, the result was fewer passengers. A SkyWest round-trip flight from Modesto to Los Angeles costs $245, while a round-trip flight from Modesto to San Francisco is $213.

Travelers to Los Angeles can take connecting flights at higher prices, including Mexico City for $615 round-trip.

The Embraer 120 turboprop airplanes used for the flights seat 30 passengers.

It was not clear what SkyWest previously charged for Modesto-Los Angeles flights, though the airline had an introductory one-way price of $79 when the flights began in June 2006.

At that time, the city of Modesto had a one-year agreement to pay SkyWest as much as $550,000 if the airline's flights weren't profitable.

According to the agreement, SkyWest had to make $2,043 per flight. The amount would be paid out of a federal Department of Transportation grant that the city had received.

After that, according to then-Airport Manager Michael Musca, the city and airline were on their own.

Thiele said the Los Angeles flights helped Modesto to a record number of boarding passengers in 2007, with 51,587 taking flights from the airport.

"Those flights definitely stimulated the market here," Thiele said. "The LA flights were very popular."

Thiele said Modesto's situation is further complicated because United, which partners with SkyWest on Modesto flights, wants all of its flights into or out of Los Angeles to be with jets, as of August.

The flights in Modesto use propeller jets, Thiele said, adding that he's asked United what the airport needs to do to accommodate commercial jet traffic.

But Hunter said United's mandate was not a factor in SkyWest's decision to cut the Modesto-Los Angeles route. Ironically, many other carriers are adding propeller planes because they're more fuel-efficient.

Chamber exec disappointed

Joy Madison, Modesto Chamber of Commerce chief executive officer, said SkyWest's announcement is doubly disappointing because the problem wasn't that travelers weren't taking the planes.

"Any time you lose air service, it's harder for the local businesses," said Madison, who added she'd used SkyWest for a recent flight that ended in Washington, D.C. "It's a recruiting and a retention tool."

Passengers waiting for a delayed 1:45 p.m. flight to Los Angeles on Wednesday said they were disappointed with SkyWest's decision.

"That's a shame," said Vondell McKenzie of Los Banos, who flies out of Modesto to Los Angeles about twice a month for business and to visit a daughter. "I'll be missing the convenience of not having to go into a big parking lot, in a big city."

Lisa Avakian said she drove from Stockton to catch flights about twice a month to Los Angeles.

"It's more convenient being here," she said. "You go to Sacramento or San Francisco, you fight the traffic, the parking."

But Avakian said there are only about 10 passengers on some flights. "It's pretty empty," she said.

Before SkyWest's flights started, Modesto hadn't had air serv- ice to Los Angeles since 1992, when American Eagle stopped its service.

SkyWest's last Modesto-Los Angeles flights will be June 28, Hunter said. All flights until then will proceed as normal.

SkyWest also will drop one daily flight to San Francisco from Modesto on Wednesdays and Thursdays that leaves at about 11:42 a.m., Thiele said.

Hunter said the flight was being discontinued for the same reasons as the Los Angeles flights.

Thiele and Madison said they believe it's possible Modesto can restore air service to Los Angeles, based on the popularity of SkyWest's flights.

"We hope to be able to turn this around," Thiele said. "Given the population, the population growth and the economic base here, there is a market."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Bee staff writer Ben van der Meer can be reached at bvandermeer@modbee.com or 578-2331.

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