The sudden departure of SeaPort Airlines and its service has left Visalians in a holding pattern about the future of air service for Tulare County.
SeaPort ended its service to the five California airports it served on Friday, as well as its Kansas routes, without warning. The closures came as a huge surprise to everyone, including Visalia Mayor Steve Nelsen and Visalia Airport Manager Mario Cifuentez.
“There’s a lot of questions that need to be answered,” Nelsen said.
The last flights took place on Friday afternoon, and one was diverted from Sacramento, taking Visalia-bound passengers to Burbank instead. The flight left at 12:31pm Friday, scheduled to fly to Visalia, then diverted to Burbank, landing there at 2:29pm, according to FlightAware.
“The important thing,” Cifuentez said, “is what do we do now?”
While trying to obtain more information from SeaPort management and the Federal Aviation Administration, Visalia is considering its possibilities for the future, starting with an upcoming Airport Advisory Committee meeting.
“I think, for us, we have to consider who’s left,” Cifuentez said.
Those left may include the companies that placed Essential Air Service (EAS) bids for service when SeaPort did in 2014, and whoever else may be interested.
“There are relatively few on the West Coast,” he said.
“I’d like to see a track record of making it through a whole contract,” he added, while providing good service.
Good service, the manager, mayor and Vice Mayor E. Warren Gubler agree, was something that Visalia’s prior carrier, Great Lakes Airlines, did not provide.
“In dealing with Great Lakes, we were very unhappy with their service,” Gubler said. “SeaPort had been wonderful; they increased their ridership.”
Indeed, the airline often filled its 9-seater, single-turboprop engine Cessna Caravan planes to Burbank and Sacramento up to four times a day on weekdays and twice daily on weekends.
Gubler, who serves on the Airport Advisory Committee, said he would like to see the city keep its passenger air service.
“I think we’re going put it out to bid again,” he said.
The air services now rely on federal subsidies through the EAS program, but Gubler said that through SeaPort, service in Visalia was working toward being self-sufficient.
“If we can find a good company that has reliable service, we could [be self-sufficient]” he said.
Passengers vs Freight
Another option for the airport is to terminate passenger service and consider enticing businesses to use it as a purely corporate travel-based airport and/or attracting a cargo carrier.
At the time SeaPort was awarded a two-year contract, in September 2014, the city was offered a buyout program to do away with its subsidized service, Nelsen said.
“It was a substantial amount of money,” he said, adding that the buyout would be paid over a three-year period.
In a 3-2 vote, Nelsen voted against awarding SeaPort service in 2014, as did Council Member Greg Collins. At the time, Nelsen said he felt that any passenger airlines bidding on service would only provide a poor job of service or have low ridership.
“This [SeaPort’s sudden shutdown] just adds creditability and credence to what I was saying,” Nelsen said.
“I, personally, would like to see it go out to bid and give it another shot,” Gubler said, “not with Great Lakes, though.
“The federal government offered $2 million [to convert the airport],” he said, “but once that’s done, it would never come back.”
There are some airlines that offered bids that would probably bid again, as well as new players that may come in with a bid this time.
Potential Passenger Carriers
Boutique Air, based in San Francisco, bid in 2014, and recently was awarded EAS in Merced flying to Oakland, Los Angeles and Las Vegas, Nevada. Cifuentez expressed concerns with the airline in that it has recently picked up numerous contracts, and he questions if they will keep those routes up, he said.
Mokulele Airlines, owned by Arizona-based Transpac Aviation Inc., services the Hawaiian Islands. It is one that Gubler would like to re-consider.
“It wants to get a toe-hold in California,” he said.
Another contender may be Anchorage-based PenAir, an Alaska Airlines codeshare partner, which recently entered the California market. This airline was recently awarded EAS service from Crescent City, California to Portland, Oregon, and has expressed interest in serving other California cities.
If air service is to remain alive in Tulare County, consideration will have to be given to who can provide the most economical service while having a good track record and providing reliable service.
SeaPort’s failure to complete a two-year contract leaves a bitter taste for these considerations.
In a press release late Friday evening, SeaPort stated:
The company was forced to take this action because of the impact on SeaPort’s business and operations following the effects of the shortage of airline pilots in the United States.
Whether this revealed the whole truth behind the immediate action remains unclear.
“I’m amazed by the way it happened,” Nelsen said. “In business – there is always a 30- or 60-day notice.
“How could they leave those passengers stranded?” he wondered, referring to those on Flight 5301, which landed in Burbank rather than Visalia.
“They could have at least completed their contract with them,” he said.
With flyers, SeaPort has had a poor reputation with regard to flight times and cancellations, according to feedback left on Yelp, Facebook and Twitter.
Speculation alludes to the company trying to grow too fast. Just prior to the shutdown of the California and Kansas services, SeaPort was sharing its intention of adding three new routes on its website.
Along with the California and Kansas routes being taken off the site over the weekend, the company also removed references to routes it had advertised out of Seattle to Port Angeles, Washington and Moses Lake, Washington.
There are many who doubt the shortage of pilots as the real reason for the cancellations of service.
SeaPort Executive Vice President Tim Seiber reiterated the reason stated in the news release for the sudden closure – a shortage of airline pilots in the United States.
As of Saturday night, the airline had 17 pilots available when 54 are needed to keep up with the schedule.
’We’ve had airplanes sitting on the ground, and we keep having the attrition of pilots, attributable to the increase in the required number of hours that pilot have to have in order to fly large jets,” Seiber said.
To work as a co-pilot for a large airline, a pilot must have a minimum of 1,500 hours of flight time and an air transport pilot rating, “like a master’s degree to fly in the co-pilot’s seat,” Seiber said. The FAA changed that rule in 2014, he said.
While it’s true that a pilot only needs 1,200 hours to captain one of SeaPort’s nine-seat aircraft, and may be co-pilot with 500-700 hours of flight experience, pilots are plucked up by the big airlines when the 1,500-hour plateau is reached.
“They’re getting lured out the door by $10,000 and $15,000 signing bonuses by the major airlines,” Seiber said.
The rule change did not affect SeaPort until recently, he said, and with rented aircraft sitting idle, costing money and not generating income, “we had to make a decision. (Friday) was one of the most painful days in my 35 years. If Congress doesn’t do something, this problem is going to persist.”
With speculation on several aircraft and pilot forums online, the subject of possible repossession of planes has come up.
On January 16, forum user “Tpinks” posted to Airline Pilot Central:
User “Sanguy” replied to the post, less than an hour later:
Very true. Half the fleet went back.
User “N19906” posted:
They lease everything.
One of the leaseholders had ten-ish of their airplanes. There was a thirty day clause before they could repossess them in case of a “disagreement”. Well, the powers that be never let on to that fact when the clock started ticking, so it was a big surprise for the employees. All of the CA operations ceased about ten hours after the airplanes were repossessed.
They’re down to two in PDX, w/ one other stuck in SAN awaiting repair, and three-ish in Memphis.
They hope to recover, but past preformance of mgnt. is a bit “sketchy” .
Fat on FO [First Officers]’s, short on CA [Captain]’s. Turnover is high.
Good luck guys.
A tracking of many plane tail numbers showed that some planes utilized by SeaPort were owned by Avion Capital Corporation in Anchorage. Phone calls to this corporation were not returned by press time.
Whether the closure is related to the pilot shortage, financial problems, or a combination of both, Visalia is moving forward. It is important to note that the SeaPort closing has cost some Visalians their jobs as well.
On the Valley Voice website, Jamie Russell posted:
As an employee of seaport in Visalia, this whole thing came as a total shock. We were in business 1 day the next gone. I don’t understand why they’d do this with so many people depending on it as well as our passengers. While I’ll admit we had recently hit a rough patch with delays and cancellations, it was most likely not the cause of this and I whole heartedly extend my sincere apologies to ALL our passengers. I can only hope someone else comes in and we can have our jobs back and be ready to serve our passengers with the upmost service. I only ask that if this happens and I see our passengers again that you will be loyal to us as you were seaport. GOD BLESS EVERYONE!!