The US Department of Transportation (DOT) quickly gathered bids from airlines hoping to fill the void of passenger service in and out of Visalia, following the sudden departure of SeaPort Airlines in December.
Visalia City Council and the Airport Advisory Committee received those bids with a deadline of February 25 for community comments to DOT.
“There just was not enough time,” said Councilman Bob Link who serves on the committee. “We need more information and time to digest it.”
An extension request was filed late last week, said Mario Cifuentes, airport manager, who said he thought DOT will award the extension request until afterthe March 7 city council meeting.
Three air carriers are vying to provide service to Visalia.
Boutique Air, Great Lakes Airlines and Mokulele Airlines have each submitted a bid to the DOT to provide service for Visalia; all three previously bid in 2014, when SeaPort was awarded service.
Any air services would rely on federal subsidies through the Essential Air Services (EAS) program. Airlines receive subsidies from the EAS program to serve smaller markets like Visalia throughout the country.
Kailua-Kona, Hawaii-based Mokulele Airlines bid to provide 48 weekly flights from Visalia to Los Angeles International (LAX) using a nine-passenger Cessna Caravan, the same type of aircraft that SeaPort flew. Mokulele is a new entrant to California; it currently provides service in Hawaii, Pennsylvania and New York.
The carrier stated in its bid that it would have “comfortably configured vans” to drive passengers to a nearby airport in the event of an unrecoverable delay or cancellation, and that it is working on an agreement with the Fresno-Yosemite International Airport to reroute passengers there in the event of heavy fog or inclement weather at Visalia, as a way to avoid cancelling flights.
The airline said it currently has interline agreements–which allow passengers to fly multiple carriers without re-checking their bags–with Alaska Airlines, Air New Zealand and Island Air.
Mokulele’s subsidy pricing is tied into whether Imperial/El Centro, another former SeaPort community, also chooses the carrier, and the length of contract it is awarded.
If both communities choose Mokulele and it is provided a four-year contract, its requested subsidy for Visalia service would be $2.1m for its first year of service and $2m for subsequent years.
Cheyenne, Wyoming-based Great Lakes Airlines, Visalia’s air carrier prior to SeaPort, also bid for service from Visalia to LAX with two round-trips per day in a 19-passenger pressurized Beechcraft 1900, the same type of aircraft it used to previously service Visalia.
In its bid, the airline touts interline agreements with American Airlines, Delta Airlines and United Airlines, including the ability to earn SkyMiles on Delta. It is requesting a subsidy of $2.6m per year on a two-year contract.
San Francisco-based Boutique Air, which currently provides service to Merced, submitted two separate bids – one for service from Visalia to LAX and Oakland, and another for service from Visalia to LAX and Sacramento, both with two round trips per day.
The airline would provide service in a 9-passenger pressurized Pilatus PC-12, which it says is equipped with power outlets and an enclosed lavatory.
If chosen to provide service to Visalia and Oakland, the airline would require a $3.5m subsidy per year. If it provides service to Sacramento, it would instead request $3.6m per year.
Generally, the committee likes to meet with potential bid-winners prior to making recommendation to council, Cifuentes said. But, no one is standing out at the moment, he added.
“Each has its own unique elements,” Cifuentes said.
“Boutique offers two locations, but the bid is $1 million higher,” he added.
One of main questions, Cifuentes said, is whether any airline is able to provide cost-effective service and increase ridership. The average subsidy per passenger must remain below $200 or Visalia would be disqualified from the EAS program.
SeaPort had managed to increase ridership significantly. According to theDOT, Visalia had 9,297 passengers for Fiscal Year 2015, when SeaPort flew from Visalia, compared to 4,355 passengers for Fiscal Year 2014, when Great Lakes provided service.
The other option, for Visalia, is to consider a DOT temporary buyout, the Community Flexibility Pilot Program, in which the city would receive a sizeable grant to upgrade the airport, making it attractive to corporate jets and/or another freight carrier.
For the next 10 years, the airport would not be open for passenger service.
The buyout is based on previous year’s subsidies being doubled, Cifuentes said, which would be more than $3 million for Visalia.
Locally, some, including Vice Mayor Warren Gubler, have expressed concern that if passenger service was suspended, it probably would never come back.
The buyout program was first made available in 2004 for up to 10 Essential Air Service cities. As of September 3, 2015, no one had taken that option, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Plans are for the committee to reconvene with receipt of additional information requested and come up with its recommendations to be brought to the full city council at its regular meeting, Tuesday, March 7.