Visalia airport favors current airline for contract

Great Lakes Airlines has been serving the Visalia Municipal Airport for the past four yearsGreat Lakes Airlines has been serving the Visalia Municipal Airport for the past four yearsFollowing a proposal that would have offered a number of new destinations out of the small Visalia Municipal Airport, the city recently decided to stick with the airline that’s been transporting its passengers for the last four years.
For weeks, the city has been debating over two different applicants seeking to offer air travel under the federal government’s subsidized Essential Air Service (EAS) program, which extends funds to help maintain air service in rural areas.

With the current contract expiring Sept. 30, the Department of Transportation will soon select its choice of airline to service both Visalia and Merced under the program for the next two years.

In a letter sent to the department on Monday, the Visalia City Council recommended that Great Lakes Airlines of Cheyenne, Wyo. continue its two daily flights to Los Angeles under the EAS program.

The recommendation passes over a recent proposal by SeaPort Airlines of Portland, Ore. for several daily flights to Merced, Burbank, Oakland and San Diego.

According to a city staff report, the choice had a lot to do with the value of the competing bids and the fact that the Department of Transportation generally “prefers to award the
contract to the air carrier requesting the lowest subsidy amount.”

Great Lakes Airlines requested an annual subsidy of $1,697,929 compared to $1,857,912 requested by SeaPort.

That brings Great Lakes’ per passenger subsidy down to $248 compared with the previous $346.

Another kicker was Great Lakes’ two daily flights to Los Angeles. The staff report states that more than 60 percent of Visalia bookings have been to destinations beyond Los Angeles..

The number of passengers flying into and out of Visalia nearly doubled from 327 in April 2011 to 600 in June 2011 after Great Lakes curtailed its Ontario service last year and began flying into Los Angeles International Airport.

The number of commercial passengers flying in and out of Visalia Municipal Airport increased 40 percent during the past year under Great Lakes.

The staff report goes on to say the demand for travel to SeaPort’s destination’s is not proven nor considered large hubs under EAS regulations while the company does not currently have service to its proposed cities, meaning terminal agreements would still have to be worked out.

Furthermore, Great Lakes will continue its code-share agreements with four major airlines at its Los Angeles hub, meaning Great Lakes’ passengers are rerouted on the larger airlines without having to book an additional flight.  

The selection of SeaPort would have its advantages, however. The airline’s proposal estimates a ridership of around 9,500 annually out of Visalia through more than 11 daily departures to four destinations compared with Great Lakes at 8,500 passengers and only one destination since it’s proposal doesn’t include a flight to Las Vegas as it offers currently.

On top of that, the increased frequency with SeaPort compared to Great Lakes would actually bring the per-passenger subsidy down to $194, while anything above $200 in the next two years could cause Visalia to become ineligible for commercial air service under the EAS program.

SeaPort’s fares would be set at $70 per one-way trip to Burbank and $80 per one-way trip to Oakland. Also, 9-seat Cessna Caravans and 9-seat Piper Chieftan SeaPort intends to run are newer than the 19-passenger Beech 1900D aircraft by Great Lakes.

SeaPort, founded 30 years ago, operates a fleet of 14 plans making more than 150 daily scheduled flights in Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, and Washington.