June 20, 2008

Great Lakes Tapped to Serve Visalia Once Again

By Tim Sheehan, The Fresno Bee, Calif.

Jun. 20--VISALIA -- The U.S. Department of Transportation has chosen Great Lakes Aviation -- again -- to provide airline service to Visalia and Merced, bolstered by a $3 million-a-year federal subsidy.

The airline, based in Cheyenne, Wyo., was the lone bidder last week for the routes.

Merced and Visalia have been without airline service since May 31, when Air Midwest -- flying under the US Airways Express brand -- ceased flights between Las Vegas and the two Valley airports as part of a nationwide closure.

It's the third time Great Lakes has bid for the service, and the second time the airline was selected to receive the contract under the federal Essential Air Service program.

Great Lakes was chosen in October to replace Air Midwest, but was never able to get its service to Las Vegas off the ground because of problems meshing airport operations and ticketing services with those of United Airlines, its would-be partner at Las Vegas' McCarran International Airport.

Those issues prompted the airline to make an either/or pitch this time around, proposing two nonstop round trips daily to either Ontario International Airport in San Bernardino County, or Las Vegas.

"In our bid we proposed either Ontario or Las Vegas," Monica Taylor, Great Lakes' director of sales and marketing, said Thursday. "It will likely be Ontario to start with, depending on how difficult it is to get the Las Vegas issues figured out.

"If Ontario turns out to be a good route for us, we might keep it; the possibility stands to get the Vegas route open and then do both," she said. "But we can't make any promises."

The federal order asks that Great Lakes begin its service by Sept. 8. "We really hope it will be earlier than that," Taylor said.

Visalia Municipal Airport Manager Mario Cifuentez said it's important to reinstate air service quickly.

"It's exciting for us to see them finally get the service going again," Cifuentez said Thursday. He said he has received comments from several travelers who are enthusiastic about flights to Ontario because it opens up business travel to southern California.

"We don't want to give up service to Las Vegas because we have a track record of demand," he added.

Before Air Midwest bailed out of the market, Cifuentez said Visalia had between 700 and 800 passengers a month who were flying to Las Vegas as their destination either for business or pleasure, rather than connecting to other airlines.

It's the connections that are important to the Essential Air Service program, created in 1978 in the wake of airline-industry deregulation to ensure smaller cities like Visalia and Merced stay connected to the national air transportation system.

Ontario International, operating under the auspices of Los Angeles World Airports, reports 10 airlines there offer more than 380 flights daily to cities across the country. At McCarran International, there are more than 500 domestic and international flights daily on nearly three dozen airlines.

Glenn Morris, executive director of the Visalia Convention & Visitors Bureau, said airline service is a mark of legitimacy for a community.

"You know, 19 seats isn't that many people," Morris said of the Beechcraft 1900-D turboprop airplanes Great Lakes will fly in Visalia and Merced. "But what an airline does is put you on the map; it says you're a real community."

He said airline service in Visalia gives his agency another marketing partner to attract people to visit the city for business or pleasure.

The reporter can be reached at [email protected] or (559) 622-2410.


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