Six months ago, SeaPort Airlines started daily service from Visalia to Sacramento and Burbank. The results have been very good with many flights full or near capacity.
Some locals have actually had trouble getting tickets for their preferred flights.
“It’s an interesting problem to have,” said Mario Cifuentez, Visalia airport manager.
SeaPort flies four flights daily each way on weekdays, with fewer flights on Saturday and Sunday. The Burbank flight actually extends to San Diego, which many flyers find appealing.
Prior to SeaPort’s service, “we had been saying, maybe air service has run its course in Visalia,” Cifuentez said.
“I am ecstatically surprised,” he said.
Within its first three months of service, SeaPort flights have carried more passengers in and out of Visalia than were carried the entire previous year, Cifuentez said.
To be fair, not all flyers are from Tulare County or nearby communities. There are flyers using SeaPort’s service from Sacramento connecting all the way down to San Diego and back. But, it still reflects in good numbers for Visalia.
Airlines receive subsidies from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Essential Air Service program to serve smaller markets like Visalia, throughout the country.
Subsidies must now fall under a $200 per passenger average, to keep operations going.
One of the largest problems to date, for the local airline service, is staying on time.
“We wish to improve our on-time performance,” said Tim Sieber, executive vice president of SeaPort. “There is room for improvement.”
Most of these problems seem to stem from a back-up of servicing aircrafts. Until now, SeaPort has used an outside source for aircraft maintenance. But the airline is now staffing its own maintenance department and has leased a hangar at the Burbank airport.
This leaves the airline in control of maintenance and timing, which should improve its performance, Sieber said.
At this time, SeaPort is not looking to increase its number of flights or the size of its aircraft. The airline currently flies nine-seat, single-engine Cessna 208 Caravan turboprop airplanes.
“Even if we could add frequency, we are still dealing with a pilot shortage,” Sieber said.
SeaPort is not alone in dealing with too few pilots available. Two years ago, the Federal Aviation Administration implemented tighter regulations regarding pilot qualifications for passenger flights. This dramatically increased the amount of flight hours a co-pilot must have before being allowed to fly commercial passenger flights, and also the number of hours a pilot must have served as a co-pilot.
The new regulations stem, in part, from the crash of Colgan Air 3407 near Buffalo, New York in February 2009, in which 50 people died.
With the new regulations, many airlines have felt the pinch in hiring qualified pilots, especially smaller airlines with commuter flights.
“We’re just not sure when pilot staffing is going to stabilize,” Sieber said.
SeaPort is looking into flying larger planes in the future, but the requirements for pilots flying more than nine-seater planes requires more training and higher salaries, he said.
All-in-all, SeaPort is delighted with its first six months serving Visalia, Sieber said. The company currently has a two-year contract with the City of Visalia, which, so far, appears to be a successful marriage.
“Ideally, we would like to see more flights, for us (Visalia),” Cifuentez said. “But, as a city, we’re just happy.”
As for ticketing, Cifuentez recommends booking early.