Modesto Business leaders shape airport future

CalPilots Editor’s Note: There have been multiple occasions in the past where neighborhood airport detractors have purposely and incorrectly stated that “if the airport is allowed to lengthen its runway or sell jet fuel that the airlines would soon follow”. This article is very educational in understanding just what is involved in obtaining airline service, i.e, it is not easy and minor airport upgrades will not matter.

Editorial –  Friday, June 1, 2012

The question is not what kind of air service we’d like to have at the Modesto Airport. That would be an easy answer for most residents: Cheap and on-time flights on big, smooth-flying jets to San Francisco, Los Angeles and one or two other urban hubs, maybe Salt Lake City and Portland, Ore., or Seattle.

The question is what kind of air service will we use – guarantee to use – and otherwise pay to support? And that question doesn’t fall to the occasional travelers or even to the City Council. It’s primarily a question for the business community.

Modesto Airport Manager Jerome Thiele has invited corporate “decision makers” to one of several presentations next week to discuss some of the cold, hard facts about air service in and out of Modesto and, more important, what they can do to change it.

We assume most of the business executives will be familiar with this checkered history: That airlines have come and gone over the years but it’s been difficult to keep regular service to anywhere but San Francisco. And the bad news is that even air traffic to San Francisco is declining.

Thiele provided us the boarding numbers in the chart we present here. The declining passenger boarding count has prompted SkyWest to announce that in the fall it will be reducing the number of daily flights out of Modesto from four to three. Thiele said he doesn’t know yet which flight will be dropped.

There’s a possibility that SkyWest could further reduce its service between Modesto and San Francisco. Mostly because of unpredictable weather, the San Francisco airport has one of the nation’s worst on-time flight records. It is congested and that will be exacerbated with a major runway improvement project that is getting under way.

Modesto has wanted SkyWest to resume service to Los Angeles, leading to one idea: Bring back the Los Angeles flights and drop San Francisco service. That’s only a possibility.

Thiele says SkyWest is not interested in the city of Modesto or Stanislaus County offering some sort of short-term subsidy to improve air service – and we’ll point out that neither government entity has the money to do that anyway. Modesto received a federal grant that subsidized the Los Angeles service; it won’t be eligible for another one to that hub, according to Thiele.

Instead, airlines are looking for private sector partnerships and support. If other communities offer that and Modesto doesn’t, then Modesto is likely to have less air service, not more.

All this falls under the label of air service development, and it is an element of economic development. Having reliable, regular air service is a plus for a community to retain and draw new businesses.

Air service development is not primarily a function of government. In some communities it is a joint government-private sector effort. In others, the private sector is the driving force. In one Michigan city, a Rotary Club led the way. In Daytona Beach, Fla., an airport service task force is composed of business leaders.

Most medium-sized communities want more and better air service – and many, like Modesto, don’t fill the seats they have available. They’re losing air service because they’re not using it. Airlines want to make a profit; they serve communities where they can do that.

Stockton is arguably in worse shape than Modesto. Its lone air carrier is Allegiant, which offers flights to and from Las Vegas and has announced plans to start flights to Honolulu in November. Allegiant is oriented to leisure travel, not to business travel.

Great Lakes Airlines serves Merced, with flights to and from Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

Modesto’s lone airline, SkyWest, is a regional carrier for United and it serves both vacation and business travelers. Twenty percent of the people who fly to San Francisco are using that as a connection to get to one of the Los Angeles-area airports, That’s a useful argument for direct flights to and from Los Angeles.

Next week’s presentations are a starting point. The business leaders who attend will hear from Mike Mooney from the Sixel Consulting Group, a firm that specializes in air service development.

The solutions will be challenging, no doubt, but the questions for the business community are pretty simple: What kind of air service do you want, and what are you willing to do to get it? Your answers will affect all of us.