At the January 5 City Council meeting, the council approved the submission of a letter to the Department of Transportation (DOT) in support of a change of air service proposed by SeaPort Airlines, Visalia’s sole air carrier. The change, replacing Oakland with Sacramento (SMF) as a destination for 12 weekly roundtrips from Visalia’s Municipal Airport, is pending approval. The request does not change the 12 weekly roundtrips to Burbank.
The change provides Visalia with the Central Valley’s only daily air service to the state capital at a fare only slightly higher than train fare: $59 one-way. The airline will provide a special discounted “Get Onboard” fare of $39 one-way to both Sacramento and Burbank for flights up to March 31, if booked by March 15.
Ticket sales began on January 13, and are available on SeaPort’s website or most travel websites.
On January 6, SeaPort sent a formal request to the DOT seeking approval of the change of service on an expedited basis in order to begin service on February 9. Throughout the entire proposal process, SeaPort has demonstrated a willingness to tailor its service to meet the needs of the community while trying to determine what routes and times would provide the greatest increase in passenger utilization.
The Air Service Subcommittee (Council Members Link and Gubler) and staff concurred with SeaPort’s recommendation, believing that the change from Oakland to Sacramento will better suit the business travelers in our market.
“They [SeaPort] put a bid in on our service in 2012, when Great Lakes did, which ultimately went to Lakes,” said Visalia Municipal Airport manager, Mario Cifuentes. “And during meetings at that time council would always say, could you get into Sacramento? And at that time, they couldn’t, Sacramento’s rates and fee structure was cost-prohibitive because the fees were the same, whether you flew a 747 or a Caravan.”
In a January 8 letter to the DOT, Visalia Mayor Steve Nelsen wrote: “For many years now, the City Council has inquired with various carriers about the possibility of having service to our state capitol. Up until now, the Rates & Fees structure at SMF has been cost prohibitive. When the City was notified that SMF was now an option, our City Council was compelled to review the proposal…The City of Visalia appreciates the Essential Air Service program and the opportunities it offers the community to continue to have air service.”
On December 11, 2014, the DOT issued an order selecting SeaPort Airlines as the carrier to provide air service to Visalia for the contract period of January 1, 2015 through December 31, 2016. SeaPort had proposed twice daily service to Burbank and Oakland, with the Burbank flights continuing on to San Diego. SeaPort currently provides service from El Centro to San Diego and Burbank, and they are excited to be growing their California markets. SeaPort currently has more than 15 Essential Air Service communities and boasts that they have never lost a community during the contract rebid process.
“When they started looking at opening up service, the question came again from our council members, and the rate structure had changed at that point, and it was actually something that they could do,” Cifuentes said. “With Burbank and Sacramento service, those are two locations that Fresno doesn’t have service to, they’re complimentary.”
Prior to the issuance of the order, SeaPort performed market analysis for Visalia and determined that it has historically been a market of business travelers, rather than leisure travelers. Sacramento, while still providing access to low-fare carriers such as Southwest and JetBlue, offers greater worldwide connectivity by providing travelers with access to all three of the major global alliances, SkyTeam, OneWorld, and Star Alliance.
For travelers not familiar with the new airline model of global alliances, Sacramento has both American and United Airlines, whereas Oakland does not. Customers that would most likely benefit from this access typically represent business travelers and therefore would help drive economic growth in the San Joaquin Valley. This connectivity and contribution to economic growth is consistent with the overall goals of the Essential Air Service program.
Where differences do exist in service levels, they are largely attributable to low-fare airlines at Oakland that provide varied service levels to leisure destinations and target price-sensitive customers. Some of these carriers, such as Spirit and Allegiant Air, offer less-than-daily schedules and/or very late night/early morning departure times (effectively “red-eye” flights). SeaPort believes such traffic would have comprised a very small percentage of the overall demand on the Visalia-Oakland sector.
Approval, while likely, is not automatic. Officials from both SeaPort and the Visalia airport authority believe that approval for Sacramento service will be forthcoming.
SeaPort indicated in a January 13 press release that the Department of Transportation signaled approval coming within the next few days.
“There’s no telling what’s going to happen at the federal level,” said Cifuentes. “But, I hope so. I know that the DOT has confirmed receipt of both their order and our letter in support. They’re still shooting for the 9th.”