Jeff Jardine

Regional airport concept didn’t suit Modesto 30+ years ago, still doesn’t today

Stockton/Modesto Regional Airport sign from 1983.
Stockton/Modesto Regional Airport sign from 1983. Modesto Bee file

Back in 1983, with both Modesto and Stockton airports struggling to support passenger air service, leaders of those cities engaged in talks to create a regional airport in Stockton.

It was such a promising idea – for Stockton – that our neighbor to the north couldn’t wait for the studies to be completed, contracts drawn and the ink to dry. Officials there took upon themselves to post signs along Highway 99 directing folks to the “Stockton/Modesto Regional Airport.”

They clearly had not been cleared for takeoff.

Even though officials from Modesto and San Joaquin County had been discussing an airport merger for more than five years, the Modesto folks were understandably peeved – so peeved that the Modesto City Council voted to sue San Joaquin County for using “Modesto” in the name. The supervisors there refused to back down, and Modesto refused to appoint a representative to the advisory committee for the regional airport. You know, the one that wasn’t regional. A $115,000 study told them it wouldn’t be advantageous to either city.

“Stockton was too close to the airports in Sacramento and Oakland,” said Carol Whiteside, a Modesto City Council member at the time. “We’re further away. We thought we had the better location. They thought they had the better airport.”

After a couple of months, the sign came down, the threat of the lawsuit subsided and the airports went back to competing against each other. Three decades and some change later, nothing’s changed except there is no competition. Stockton has commercial passenger service while Modesto does not and hasn’t since 2014.

That might change if Great Lakes Airlines decides to provide passenger service from Modesto to Los Angeles. Stockton also is trying to land a carrier that would fly to and from LA.

The competition would extend to a second front. Great Lakes also flies into Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport, while Allegiant flies into Mesa’s Gateway Airport.

The mere fact that Modesto and Stockton are still fighting not for Valley air supremacy but merely for passenger service existence after all these decades tells you what a tough market the Valley represents for carriers.

“If either of us were in the Midwest and isolated, we would have better service,” Harry Mavrogenes, director of Stockton Metropolitan Airport, told me. “We’re too close to the Bay Area and Sacramento.”

An industrywide shortage of pilots makes it tougher.

Mavrogenes said Stockton applied for and received a federal grant that could succeed in bringing another passenger carrier. In addition to Phoenix-Mesa twice weekly, Allegiant flies 11 times a week to Las Vegas and three times to San Diego. The airport got another boost from the commercial cargo side when Amazon began flying in and out of Stockton and is now up to three flights daily.

But as they know all too well in Stockton and Modesto, fleets are fleeting. Since United made the first commercial flight out of Stockton in 1946, 22 carriers have based there and some twice. Remember Hughes Air West? Gem State or Air Chaparral? Golden Gate or Swift Aire? Aspen, Inland Empire or Air LA? None were exactly well-known carriers and none remain in business, at least under those names, today. At least two others, BooneAir and California International Airlines, grounded themselves before their inaugural flights took off from Stockton.

And a series of carriers have served Modesto since United’s first passenger flight here in 1946. United stayed until deregulation of the airline industry enabled it to leave in 1979, when it exited Stockton as well. A series of small carriers offered propeller-driven planes, connecting with major airlines in San Francisco and San Jose. WestAir, a commuter airline, came to Modesto in the 1980s and eventually became United Express. SkyWest provided the United Express flights from 1998 until ending service in 2014. The airline provided service to LA from 2006 to 2008, subsidized by a federal grant. But rising fuel costs and the inability to profit compelled the airline to end those flights.

The idea of a regional airport hasn’t been broached again in recent years, although Modesto pledged to buy $25,000 worth of tickets when America West flew from Stockton to Phoenix from 2001 until 2003.

The better regional idea, Whiteside said, would be to transform the former Castle Air Force base into an international airport and make it a prime connection point of the high-speed rail.

“It’s the only way you’re going be able to justify the high-speed rail,” she said.

But the idea of a regional airport now, in Merced, Modesto or Stockton, isn’t topping any agendas.

The surveys indicate there should be enough passengers to merit LA flights, Modesto Airport Manager Mark Germanowski said.

“The market here is indicative that both of us (Stockton and Modesto) can sustain it,” he said.

Meaning the “Stockton/Modesto Regional Airport” sign won’t be reappearing anytime soon.