Modesto aims to land commercial flights in 2015

A SkyWest plane takes off from the Modesto Airport.
A SkyWest plane takes off from the Modesto Airport. dnoda@modbee.com

The city could know within six months whether commercial flights will return to Modesto Airport next year.

The city and its airport consultant – Sixel Consulting Group – say they are talking with Utah-based SkyWest Airlines about resuming passenger air service. Modesto is aiming for twice-daily flights between Modesto and Los Angeles in 50-seat jets.

In the first half of next year, “we should have clarity if we have an opportunity in 2015” for commercial flights, Sixel air service consultant Mike Mooney said.

Mooney said if flights resume, the most likely outcome would be twice-daily flights between Modesto and Los Angeles. He said Modesto and Sixel are talking only with SkyWest and no other carriers at this time.

An airline spokeswoman had little to say. “SkyWest currently does not have plans to provide Modesto to Los Angeles service,” corporate communications coordinator McKinnley Matson said. “However, we are in communications regularly with a number of communities about potential air service opportunities.”

SkyWest partnered with United Express – a United Airlines regional carrier – to provide daily flights between Modesto and San Francisco from 1998 until early June. SkyWest cited “poor performance in the market” as its reason for ending the flights more than six months ago.

With SkyWest’s departure, this is the first time since the 1980s that Modesto has not had commercial passenger service, according to Bee archives. City officials say the airport is busy with general aviation flights and the aviation-based business at the airport.

The SkyWest flights were hindered by cancellations and delays, causing Modesto travelers to miss connecting flights at San Francisco International Airport. Citing 2013 federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics, a Sixel official has said that 7.5 percent of the Modesto-San Francisco flights were canceled and 23 percent were delayed, with an average delay of 74 minutes.

City officials say the Los Angeles flights are a better fit because Southern California was the top destination for passengers flying out of Modesto. Los Angeles International Airport also has fewer cancellations and more on-time flights than foggy San Francisco International.

Steve Fischio – a city operations manager whose duties include the airport – and Mooney declined to say whether Modesto would have to offer SkyWest a revenue guarantee to land new air service. Most carriers want a revenue guarantee when starting a new service, to ensure they don’t lose money in the initial years.

The last time Modesto Airport offered Los Angeles service was 2006-08, with SkyWest providing the flights in 30-seat turboprop planes. Modesto gave SkyWest a $550,000 revenue guarantee during the first year of service, with $495,000 of it coming from a federal grant. SkyWest cited rising fuel costs and a lack of profitability in its decision to end the flights. Previous Los Angeles flights were in 1992.

City officials have said Modesto cannot afford to offer another revenue guarantee. Sixel and the city tried another approach nearly a year ago to land the Los Angeles flights – a pledge drive to demonstrate the region’s commitment to the service.

Modesto and Sixel raised about $1.5 million during the drive, collecting 175 pledges, including nearly 40 pledges of $10,000 or more. The pledges were nonbinding and were from travelers who said they would spend the amount they pledged on tickets.

Sixel Consulting Group owner Mark Sixel said about a year ago that he had an oral understanding with a major airliner that it would start the Los Angeles flights if the pledge drive raised $1 million.

A Sixel official said several months ago that the effort was being hampered by a new Federal Aviation Administration rule this year that requires pilots to work shorter shifts and rest more. That means airlines need more pilots to provide the same level of service.

Sixel marketing and public relations manager Katie Jones now says the pledge drive no longer is a viable option. But she stressed the drive was not a failure because it showed the region’s strong desire for the Los Angeles flights.

Fischio said Modesto Airport continues to receive about a half-dozen calls a day from travelers wanting to know when commercial service will resume. He said many want the Los Angeles flights.

If a revenue guarantee is necessary, he said, Modesto would look to share the cost with others that want commercial air service. “The city would not be standing alone,” he said.

As part of the effort to bring back commercial passenger flights, Fischio said, Modesto is putting together a committee with members including businesses, chambers of commerce and others interested in the flights.

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