Visalia to Look at New Airline Bids, Airport Options

In light of the recent unannounced departure of SeaPort Airlines at the Visalia Airport, city officials have some decisions to make, again, regarding the airport’s future.

On a 3-2 vote, the Visalia City Council voted in 2014 to recommend SeaPort as Visalia’s Essential Air Service (EAS) carrier. The alternative was to take a buy-out and cease passenger service at the airport.

Mayor Steve Nelsen and Councilman Greg Collins voted against the service, preferring the city accept a Federal Aviation Administration option of a temporary buy-out from passenger service. The $2 million buy-out, still on the table, could be utilized to upgrade the airport and attract corporate business as well as another freight provider – FedEx and Ameriflight currently fly cargo in and out of the airport.

SeaPort was subsequently awarded a two year EAS contract by the Department of Transportation (DOT) totaling nearly $2 million in subsidiaries to provide flights to the airport.

After SeaPort left, an emergency filing by the DOT put passenger air service for Visalia out to bid – bidding was to close the end of the day on Wednesday, said Airport Manager Mario Cifuentes. As of press time, two airlines had rebid for the service, having both bid in 2014: Mokulele Airlines, owned by Arizona-based Transpac Aviation Inc., which services the Hawaiian Islands, and Boutique Air, based in San Francisco, which recently was awarded EAS in Merced flying to Oakland, Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

The bids are then forwarded to Visalia. The Visalia Airport Advisory Committee, comprised of Cifuentes and City Council Members Warren Gubler and Bob Link will reconvene next week to consider the bids and options for the airport and then will report back to city council.

SeaPort had been highly effective in filling seats from Visalia to Sacramento and Burbank airports. In fact, it had essentially doubled passenger usage in less than one year from that Great Lakes Airlines had provided in 2014.

Council Member Amy Shuklian had admittedly been against renewing passenger service in 2014, but said she went with the staff recommendations, voting in favor of the SeaPort contract.

“It’s certainly disappointing,” she said of Seaport’s pullout, “especially with no notice. SeaPort was exceeding expectations.”

Of the new bids for service, “I think it is the prudent thing to do,” she said. “The other option is to take the FAA offer (to temporarily halt service) and that might be thing to do with the airport.”

Shuklian pointed out that Visalia now provides daily shuttle service from the Visalia Airport to Fresno-Yosemite Airport.

On the other hand, Shuklian admits that people seemed to like the connections to Sacramento and Burbank, which Fresno-Yosemite Airport does not provide.

Gubler is excited that Mokulele Airlines has bid again – he was for the airline in 2014, but he and other council members had concern that the airlines only provided services in Hawaii and had no track record on the mainland.

However, Mokulele does, in fact, provide service on the mainland, and acts as a wet-lease carrier for Sun Air Express, providing service from Pittsburgh to Altoona, NY, Jamestown, NY and Bradford, PA using their own crews flying Cessna Caravans.

By rebidding, Boutique Airlines is making it clear it seeks to increase its California service as well.

“I’m just concerned that if we take the FAA buyout, then we’d have to wait 10 years (to reconsider passenger air service),” Gubler said.

But Nelsen presents a different picture.

“If we had one airline that couldn’t make it due to a shortage of pilots, how can another?” he asked.

There is, however, some controversy whether it was really a nationwide shortage of pilots, for SeaPort’s discontinuation of service not only to Visalia, but four other California airports as well as Kansas City, MO and two Kansas airports. Many pilot blogs and discussion websites sited financial problems with planes being repossessed.

In any event, council members are interested in what bids come in, and what the committee and staff recommend.

With regard to SeaPort, “my understanding is that basically there are no repercussions,” Nelsen said.

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