New airline woos Visalia with daily Bay Area, SoCal service

Portland's SeaPort Airlines has filed an application to operate flights out of Visalia's municipal airport.Portland's SeaPort Airlines has filed an application to operate flights out of Visalia's municipal airport.SeaPort Airlines — operator of more than 150 daily scheduled flights in Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, and Washington — has made an application to the federal Department of Transportation to serve Visalia starting this fall under the subsidized Essential Air Service program.

The Portland-based airline has been talking with Visalia officials in recent weeks about providing air service that would be an alternative to the current operator, Great Lakes Airlines.

“We are in the process of recommending one or the other to the Department of Transportation,” said Mario Cifuentes, Visalia airport manager. The recommendation is due Aug. 1 to the federal agency, which will make the final decision. Two city council members serve with staff on the committee that makes the recommendation.

Seaport would require the feds to increase the current subsidy by $100,000 annually, Cifuentes said. It’s an added hurdle for the airline as the Essential Air Service, which helps maintain scheduled flights in rural areas, remains controversial and under the microscope in a political year.

Cifuentes said Seaport’s plan is to operate small nine-passenger planes that would offer Visalians daily service to Oakland, Burbank and San Diego with one plane running a circuit each day.

If the airline were selected over Great Lakes, the connection to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), currently with two daily flights, would be lost, Cifuentes said. It was a connection long sought by Visalia. Previously, the city had daily flights  only to Ontario in San Bernardino County.

For now, Visalia is served by Cheyenne, Wyo.-based Great Lakes, with flights to both Las Vegas and LAX.

However, sources say Great Lakes could drop Las Vegas but offer three daily flights to Los Angeles from Visalia instead of just two. Cifuentes said LAX is much more important for business connections as well as to access connecting flights around the world compared to the leisure market in Las Vegas.

“That would be a plus,” said Cifuentes, since “flight frequency is so important to travelers, particularly business travelers.”

“Three flights a day to and from LAX offers more choice and options for people who miss a flight,” making it more convenient to travel from Visalia. Great Lakes does code sharing with both United and Frontier, making it convenient to use Visalia to reach whatever destination a traveler needs without a price penalty.

Ridership with Great Lakes has improved in the past year, from about five passengers a day to 10.5, Cifuentes said. 

“We had a flight with 17 passengers a few days ago, all with connecting flights,” Cifuentes said. The planes have 19 seats.

The Essential Air Service program remains under fire from conservative critics such as Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Granite Bay), who represents part of Fresno County and delivered these remarks on the House floor a few days ago:

“This program shells out nearly $200 million a year — including $114 million of direct taxpayer subsidies — to support empty and near-empty flights from selected airports in tiny communities, most of which are just a few hours’ drive from major airports.”

A reporter recently investigating the issue took one of these flights from Ely, Nevada and was the only passenger on the flight. Our constituents paid $1.8 million for this air service that carried just 227 passengers during the entire year! Ely is a three and a half hour drive from Salt Lake City International Airport.”

McClintock mentioned a reporter’s investigation into an Essential Air Service flight from Ely, Nev. where the reporter was the sole passenger, mentioning that taxpayers shelled out $1.8 million for the service that carries only 227 passengers a year.

Because of press accounts and the political focus on the Ely market, sources say the Essential Air Service will likely drop  that community, freeing up the Great Lakes planes based there.

Bad news for Ely may be good news for Visalia.