The City of Visalia’s Air Service Subcommittee is expected to decide soon which of five airlines will provide service to the city’s airport. After filing for a 45-day extension, the decision on which company to recommend to the Visalia City Council is now scheduled for September 15. The current air service contract expires at the end of the month.
The committee, which includes Vice Mayor Warren Gubler, Council Member Bob Link, City Manager Mike Olmos and Visalia Airport Manager Mario Cifuentez, is considering airlines based on their reliability, convenience and “the ability of the local traveler to get into major hubs at a reasonable price,” according to Cifuentez.
Five proposals are more than the city usually receives for its air service.
“The subsidy amount is enticing to a lot of companies that are starting up or moving to an area,” Cifuentez explained. The Essential Air Service program, funded by the federal government, provides these subsidies to guarantee air service to about 165 communities across the country, including Visalia.
The subcommittee has been evaluating proposals from five companies: SeaPort Airlines, Mokulele Airlines, Boutique Air, Wine Country Express and Visalia’s current air service provider, Great Lakes Aviation, Ltd.
SeaPort Airlines proposed 12 weekly roundtrips to Burbank Bob Hope Airport and 12 weekly roundtrips to Oakland International Airport. The same proposal also includes the service the company would provide to Merced. “We propose that an aircraft overnight at both Merced and Visalia, allowing both cities the benefit of an early morning departure,” states the proposal. “Most importantly, our proposal will not result in Merced and Visalia sharing aircraft capacity. This means that each community will have access to 100% of the capacity of each flight, increasing chances that seats will be available at a reasonable fare.”
“Burbank and San Diego are two hubs we are looking at,” said Tim Seiber, SeaPort Airlines vice president. “We are looking to provide service to both. The San Diego service would be a one-stop via Burbank.”
“Mokulele proposes to operate three roundtrips each weekday between Visalia and either Los Angeles International Airport or Long Beach Airport,” states the Mokulele Airlines proposal, which also includes service to Merced. “Should Mokulele be chosen to provide service to both communities, it would establish a maintenance and operations base at Visalia, CA. All Mokulele crewmembers would be based in Visalia, CA as well, in a two-city scenario. Consequently, in the two-city scenario, Visalia would receive a fourth weekday frequency northbound to Oakland International Airport via Merced.”
Boutique Air offers two options. The first option includes 24 non-stop roundtrip flights to Los Angeles, the second option has 18 non-stop roundtrip flights. The proposal includes the following, however, “LAS (McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas) may be used instead of LAX for up to six frequencies at Boutique Air’s discretion.”
“Option one provides four years of service to and from Visalia utilizing a Cessna Grand Caravan aircraft operating 26 flights weekly,” states the proposal from Schuman Aviation, Ltd. dba Wine Country Express. “Option two provides two years of service to the community utilizing the Cessna Grand Caravan for a two-year period followed by two years of operation aboard a nineteen-passenger Beech 1900 aircraft.”
“Our proposals contemplate conveniently timed connecting services to our Los Angeles (LAX) hub, whereby passengers may utilize our code-share agreements with United Airlines,” states the proposal from current provider Great Lakes, which also includes Merced.
Great Lakes also added a new destination in its proposal. “Great Lakes is submitting an indicative proposal for regional jet service for both Merced and Visialia to our Denver hub. We are prepared to commit, with the full marketing support of the communities and the regulatory support of federal agencies, to upgrading the aircraft to 37 seat or larger regional jets operating two roundtrips per weekday and two roundtrips over the weekend period.”
“They actually have a large presence there,” explained Cifuentez.
Although five air service providers submitted proposals, only three are under serious consideration by the subcommittee.
“There’s a pretty big gap between the top three and the other two,” Cifuentez said, adding that since the subcommittee is “still in discussion,” he wouldn’t share the name of one of the aspiring Visalia air service providers that was out of contention, but the other one that is no longer in the running is Wine Country. “They don’t have any cities yet. They are too new for us to consider.”
A smaller list of candidates makes things a little easier for the subcommittee, which has to consider the unique needs of the area served by Visalia Airport.
“It really is an apple-and-oranges type of thing,” he explained. “What works for one city doesn’t work for another. Californians drive. Californians refuse to get out of their cars. Fifty percent of the population drives to L.A. It’s nothing for us to drive three hours.”
Even after the subcommittee makes its recommendation, the city council makes its decision and contracts are signed, there could still be changes.
“The proposals are not binding,” said Cifuentez, adding that along with air schedule changes over the years, two companies went out of business while they were still under contract to serve Visalia.