By a 3-2 vote, the Visalia City Council voted at its September 15 meeting to recommend to the Department of Transportation that Portland-based SeaPort Airlines provide Essential Air Service (EAS) to Visalia Airport.
EAS is a federal program that guarantees a certain level of scheduled air service to communities that would otherwise have lost access to the nation’s air transportation system in a deregulated airline industry. Five airlines submitted bids to provide EAS service to Visalia Airport.
The City of Visalia’s Air Service Subcommittee, which included Vice Mayor Warren Gubler, Council Member Bob Link, City Manager Mike Olmos and Visalia Airport Manager Mario Cifuentez, recommended that the EAS contract be awarded to SeaPort Airlines for a two-year period and that Great Lakes Airlines be relieved of the “hold-in” requirement during the transition period.
“The SeaPort proposal provides the best connectivity for our community, but their aircraft fleet and destination airports are untested in our market,” wrote the subcommittee in their report to city council. “Their service would provide Visalians with four flights per day, which translates into convenience and options… An increase in the number of flights is the number one way to increase passenger numbers through providing more options for travelers or serving as an alternative, should a flight need to be cancelled.”
In summarizing their report, the subcommittee wrote, “Of all of the proposals, it is the subcommittee’s belief that SeaPort has the highest chance of allowing Visalia to maintain eligibility in the EAS program.”
Council Member Amy Shuklian moved to accept the recommendation and Gubler seconded. Link also supported the motion. Vice Mayor Steve Nelsen and Council Member Greg Collins voted no.
There are still some questions about Visalia’s air service, however, such as how long Great Lakes will continue providing EAS service.
“We have no idea at this point,” said Cifuentez. “We’re in uncharted territory. The program is in flux and Great Lakes is struggling to provide service.”
Another unanswered question is when SeaPort will start providing local air service.
“A lot will depend when the Department of Transportation makes its decision,” explained Cifuentez, adding that the letter of comment with the city’s recommendation will be sent in time to meet the DOT’s September 29 deadline. “My best guess is December or January.”
In the discussion that preceded Monday night’s vote, Collins asked about alternative uses for the airport, such as using the airport for cargo facilities or as a fixed base operator. Cifuentez said that UPS is now working out of the backs of trucks because the airport doesn’t have the facility for them.
“I didn’t trust that I would get where I needed to go tomorrow so I didn’t book through Visalia,” said Shuklian in her comments. “I have gotten a lot of complaints about canceled flights. I will support the staff’s recommendation though.”
“Before SeaPort came, I was inclined to cancel the EAS program,” said Gubler. “Visalia was not well-served by Great Lakes. I like SeaPort’s prices, they are fair, and that they go to Burbank and Oakland. The price is about the equivalent of an Amtrak ticket. I think the company has a recipe for success and I want to give them a shot. This is our last best chance to offer viable service.”
“I usually go with the staff report because they do their due diligence,” said Nelsen. “But I don’t support this one. Using your numbers, it won’t work out.
“I’m trying to figure out the benefit to the community,” he added. “The public won’t use it because they have been so burned by Great Lakes. It looks like you need a 45% increase and I don’t think that is possible. I think it would be better to use a shuttle service (to Fresno Airport). I think it would be better to do more freight at the airport. That would better serve the community and the Industrial Park. The distributors would benefit. EAS is a dinosaur and the government will wise up and end it soon. Its time has come to an end.”
“When these new airlines come in, they offer these prices that only last a year to get their foot in the door then they change the fares,” said Collins. “That puts a bitter taste in people’s mouths. We could cobble a shuttle system together. We are only 50 minutes to the front door of Fresno Airport.”
The idea of a “loop bus” between Visalia Airport and Fresno Airport “is something that the council would like us to pursue,” said Cifuentez after the meeting. “It makes sense if we are at risk of losing our air service but, obviously, if you have air service, you don’t want to have people going to another airport.”
“We need to remember that 5,479 passengers were served last year and we need to consider them,” noted Shuklian. “Maybe SeaPort can instill confidence back into the community.”
Tim Sieber, executive vice president of SeaPort Airlines, attended the meeting and addressed council comments and concerns. “Yes, EAS is a dinosaur and will probably end in 2020,” he said. “We are structuring our airlines to continue without it.
“We have been involved with EAS and have never lost a contract,” Sieber added. “We keep our promises. Our goals are frequent flights, low fares and on-time service. We plan on building community confidence after other airlines burn people. We are committed to the community and to the market. We make an investment in the community.”
Turning his attention to Nelsen’s comments, Sieber said, “We can hit those numbers and be off the EAS system. We are well-positioned and building an airline that services small communities. We are different. We are proud of our record.”
“This council has heard convincing presentations before and some of them work and some of them didn’t,” commented Collins. “Everyone has such a bad taste in their mouth because of Great Lakes Airlines.”
“This is the best proposal that we have seen in a long time,” said Gubler. “Not only do they have a southern and a northern destination, but SeaPort
is not dependent on if Merced manages to stay in the EAS Program. I would use this for business or leisure.”
“When Great Lakes came, they came with great fanfare and promises, and what happened was the total opposite,” said Nelsen. “Visalians thought the city was at fault.”
Although SeaPort’s bid included EAS service to Merced, that city may not be included in the program, according to Cifuentez. “Technically, Merced has already had their eligibility terminated,” he said. “They were supposed to average 10 passengers per day for the fiscal year and didn’t meet that requirement.”
He added that Merced is one of 12 cities currently in the waiver process to challenge the Department of Transportation’s ruling. “Nobody has any idea when that will be acted on.”
Visalia has met that requirement, but is at risk of losing its EAS eligibility for a different reason. The Department of Transportation issued a policy of enforcement in May that targets any EAS-subsidized community that exceeds the $200-per-passenger subsidy over the new fiscal year. Currently, Visalia is over that amount.
Catherine Doe contributed to this article.