The Visalia Municipal Airport will not see air passenger service any time soon after Monday’s Visalia City Council vote, but the airport could see improvements geared toward attracting cargo operators and corporate/private aviation.
The council voted unanimously to forgo selecting yet another air carrier to serve the city’s airport and instead submit an application to the Department of Transportation (DOT) under the Community Flexibility Pilot Program (CFPP). The city’s Airport Advisory Committee recommended the city enter into the program instead of selecting another carrier after serious concerns regarding Essential Air Service program restrictions.
Visalia will be the first airport in the country to take advantage of the CFPP option, which has been available since 2004.
Visalia will apply for $3.7 million, which CFPP may provide the city in exchange for sitting out of the Essential Air Service program for 10 years. If approved, funding under the program could be used to enhance the airport such as building new hangars and other facilities which could attract cargo and private operations.
SeaPort Airlines served the airport since February 2015, but ceased service overnight on January 15, citing the nationwide pilot shortage affecting regional airlines across the nation.
Prior carrier Great Lakes Airlines had served Visalia from 2008 to 2015, but saw its reliability falter due to the same pilot shortage.
Any carrier that would operate out of Visalia, through the subsidy program, would need to have an effective per-passenger subsidy of under $200 per person. If it went above that limit, Visalia would lose its subsidy anyway – and it would no longer be eligible for the program.
SeaPort Airlines, Visalia Airport Manager Mario Cifuentez said, had managed to hit nearly 10,000 passengers during its time at Visalia. But somewhere between 30-40% of those passengers were simply flying from Burbank to Sacramento, or vice-versa, using Visalia as a stopping point, he said.
While SeaPort was successful in raising passenger counts, the subcommittee stated in its report to council that it was incredibly unlikely any of the three carriers that bid for service (Boutique Air, Mokulele Airlines or Great Lakes Airlines) would meet that subsidy cap. Cifuentez echoed these concerns to the council.
The program does not mean that passenger service at the airport would be forced to end – airlines would simply be forced to operate at Visalia without a subsidy, Cifuentez said.
At least one carrier has indicated that it does have some routes without subsidies, Cifuentez said, and that he told representatives of that airline that he would welcome them to submit a proposal.
Councilmembers said that while it was unfortunate that the community would lose service, they looked forward to the possibility of attracting companies to the city by upgrading the airport’s facilities.
“This is a good opportunity to market the airport differently,” Collins said.
The lack of reliability of the airlines serving Visalia has “been a problem” for the last 16 years, Councilmember Bob Link said.
“It could also help the Industrial Park,” Link said. “I support it 110%.”
“I’m totally supportive,” said Mayor Steve Nelsen.
“We’ve been burned [by air carriers] twice,” said Nelsen, referring to service from SeaPort Airlines and Great Lakes Airlines.
“This is a chance to rebrand it [the airport],” Nelsen said.
Nelsen also expressed an interest to increase awareness of Visalia’s V-Line bus service from Visalia’s airport to Fresno-Yosemite International, mentioning that the airport’s parking lot could be utilized for those using bus service to FYI.
Through monthly lease and landing fees, the airport has generally been receiving $40,000 annually in revenue from airlines serving Visalia, Cifuentez said outside of the meeting. That’s $400,000 in 10 years versus $3.7 million, he said. He added that he did not know whether the city would receive one lump sum or would be reimbursed project by project.
Cifunetez said he will now prepare a letter to DOT asking for their guidance on how to proceed.
“It’s a viable program,” he said, “but no one has done it before.”