Airline changes in Fresno
• SkyWest is retiring its fleet of 30-seat turboprop airplanes used in Fresno for United Express flights to San Francisco and Los Angeles in favor of 50-seat jets.
• Allegiant Airlines will not resume its seasonal nonstop flights from Fresno to Honolulu as it rethinks its strategy.
• Frontier Airlines, which dropped its Fresno-Denver service last month for good, says Fresno no longer fits in the company’s business model.
Travelers on United Express flights from Fresno Yosemite International Airport to San Francisco and Los Angeles will see changes in aircraft — and likely in the frequency of flights to those cities — by May as small propeller-driven planes are replaced by regional jetliners.
The move is one of several changes that have been made recently by airlines that will affect choices, schedules and destinations available to passengers in Fresno and the Valley. Allegiant Airlines confirmed this week that it has dropped its direct nonstop flights from Fresno and several other cities in the western U.S. to Honolulu, and Frontier Airlines has no plans to resume the nonstop Fresno-Denver flights that it dropped last month.
Utah-based SkyWest Airlines, which flies the United Express service under a contract partnership with United Airlines — and also contracts with other airlines in Fresno — is phasing out its aging fleet of 30-seat Embraer EMB 120 Brasilia turboprop airplanes across its entire system and moving to an all-jet fleet. The airline announced that all of its remaining EMB 120s will be taken out of service by this summer. Taking their place on the Fresno-San Francisco and Fresno-Los Angeles routes will be larger 50-seat Bombardier CRJ200 regional jets, said Marissa Snow, a SkyWest spokeswoman.
“We’ve been operating the 120s since the 1980s,” Snow said Friday. “It’s been a real workhorse of our fleet.” But as the aircraft get older, SkyWest finds itself spending more and more to maintain them, prompting the switch to the newer, larger jets.
According to SkyWest’s timetables, the airline currently offers four flights each day from Fresno to Los Angeles International Airport. Of the 28 weekly flights, 20 are flown using the EMB 120 turboprops. SkyWest makes 32 weekly flights from Fresno to San Francisco International Airport — four daily Monday through Wednesday, five daily Thursday through Sunday — and all but seven are on the turboprop airplanes.
“We have a small number of jet departures in Fresno now,” Snow said. “But beginning in early May we will see the transition to jets to both San Francisco and Los Angeles.”
Snow said specific daily schedules have not been finalized, but said SkyWest anticipates maintaining capacity by offering the same number of seats available daily to each of the destinations. Translation: Fewer daily flights for passengers to choose from, but on bigger, faster airplanes. Three flights on the CRJ200 can carry the same number of passengers, 150, as five flights aboard the EMB 120. “With this specific upgrade, Fresno will benefit from quicker flights, more comfortable cabins, and quieter aircraft,” Snow said.
On SkyWest’s early weekday flight to Los Angeles, a CRJ200 jet makes the 210-mile hop from Fresno in about 40 to 50 minutes. The turboprop EMB 120s make the flight in about 50 to 60 minutes. From Fresno to San Francisco, about 158 flight miles, the jet aircraft takes 30 to 40 minutes, compared to about 40 to 50 minutes for the propeller-powered planes.
Kevin Meikle, airports director for the city of Fresno, also said he sees the switch to jets to SFO and LAX as “a service enhancement” for passengers flying from Fresno.
“The Los Angeles and San Francisco markets are very strong markets, both for United Airlines and for American Airlines,” Meikle said. “We’ve had good partnerships with these airlines, and those are two big regional hubs. … Going to an all-jet scenario is a good thing, and I don’t believe we’re going to lose any seats to those airports.”
Meikle said Friday that he hopes SkyWest will maintain the same number of flights, but added that scheduling is a complicated decision for the airlines because SkyWest needs to be mindful of connecting to flights to destinations beyond San Francisco or Los Angeles. “They have to look at what’s happening systemwide, whether national or international,” he said. “It’s a complex set of data that they’re working with. They want to make sure they’re meeting all of their obligations (to United) and get everyone to an airport at a time that works for their connections and transfers.”
Meikle added that SkyWest operates a maintenance site in Fresno to tend to both the turboprop airplanes as well as jets the company uses on its other routes to and from Fresno. SkyWest’s Snow said the airline will continue to operate that facility. SkyWest also flies under the United brand to Denver, Delta Air Lines to Salt Lake City, US Airways to Phoenix, American Airlines to Los Angeles and Alaska Airlines to Seattle.
SkyWest’s fleet included about 25 EMB 120s as of mid-January. By Friday, that number was down to 15 of the turboprop airplanes. Other California markets where SkyWest flies turboprops for its United Express service, according to the airline’s route map, are Crescent City, Eureka/Arcata, Redding, Sacramento, Monterey, San Luis Obispo, Santa Maria, Santa Barbara, Palm Springs, Carlsbad and San Diego, as well as Medford, Oregon.
Allegiant quits Fresno-Hawaii flights
The fallout from SkyWest’s move to an all-jet fleet isn’t the only airline news affecting service in Fresno.
“Unfortunately, we did not see the demand we anticipated on flights from Fresno to Honolulu, and we will not be resuming that route in 2015,” the company said in a statement. “Service to Honolulu on Allegiant is available from Las Vegas and Los Angeles.”
Las Vegas-based Allegiant bought six Boeing 757 jets in 2011 to handle long-haul routes, and lauched its nonstop service to Honolulu from Las Vegas and Fresno in June 2012. The airline added several other mainland markets over the next few months before announcing in 2013 that it was putting many of the Hawaii routes on seasonal hiatus during slow travel periods.
Allegiant typically ran one or two flights a week on the Fresno-Honolulu route. The last flights between Fresno and Honolulu were last summer before the most recent seasonal slump.
“This was a business decision on the part of Allegiant,” said Meikle, the Fresno airports director. “They are regrouping in how they want to use their 757s.”
Most of Allegiant’s fleet, including the aircraft used for its popular Fresno-Las Vegas flights, are 166-seat McDonnel Douglas MD-80 jets. But Meikle said that on Thursday, Allegiant used one of its 215-seat 757s from Fresno for one of its Las Vegas flights, part of a move in which “when their demand to Vegas exceeds the capacity of the MD-80s, they bring in a 757.” Allegiant flies seven flights each week from Fresno to Las Vegas, with two flights on Sundays and Fridays and no service on Tuesdays.
In December, the airline announced that it was taking a $43.2 million charge-off on its books on the value of its six Boeing 757s. Some analysts said the charge-off, and Allegiant’s declaration that it would end its leases on the planes ahead of schedule, were a signal that the airline was largely abandoning the Hawaii market.
Since 2012, Allegiant had added Hawaii flights, on at least a seasonal basis, from Los Angeles and Stockton; Boise, Idaho; Bellingham and Spokane, Washington; Eugene, Oregon; and Phoenix/Mesa, Arizona. As of this week, the only mainland service to Hawaii on Allegiant’s route maps were from Las Vegas and Los Angeles.
“When Allegiant called us to say we were one of the calls they had to make where they weren’t going to fly to Honolulu anymore, of course I was disappointed,” Meikle said. “Any airport would like to have service to everywhere, but we want the airlines to be successful.” If an airline persists in flying a money-losing route, he added, “they leave.”
Dan Weber, Fresno’s assistant director of airports, said that Fresnans can still fly from Fresno to Hawaii in a one-stop trip by way of airline connections in Los Angeles, San Francisco or San Diego.
Frontier gone for good
In September, when the airline announced its decision to pull out of the Fresno market last fall, Frontier spokesman Todd Lemacher said that “the possibility exists for a return in summer 2015.” But that possibility has since disappeared.
Rather than a traditional hub-and-spoke model of flights connecting passengers through Denver, Lemacher said this week, “we are now focused on delivering ultra-low fares … via point-to-point service, and at this time Fresno doesn’t fit within this shift in strategy.”