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Airline bids again to serve Visalia and Merced

VISALIA -- The same airline that's been unable to get its service off the ground since October is the only company offering a new bid for a subsidized federal contract to serve Visalia and Merced.

Great Lakes Aviation, based in Cheyenne, Wyo., was the only airline to respond by Friday's deadline to a request by the U.S. Department of Transportation to serve the two Valley cities. The previous airline serving Visalia and Merced, Air Midwest, ceased its service to Las Vegas on May 31 as part of a nationwide shutdown.

Visalia City Council members voted unanimously Monday evening to endorse Great Lakes' proposal to transportation officials. The plan calls for two round trips daily between Visalia and either McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas or to Ontario International Airport in Ontario. Two round trips from Merced to Las Vegas or Ontario are also in the proposal.

Visalia Municipal Airport Manager Mario Cifuentez said Ontario surfaced as an option because of the difficulties Great Lakes has encountered since last fall in arranging ground services and ticketing agreements with United Airlines, its proposed partner in Las Vegas.

Cifuentez said airline officials believe they're more likely to begin service much sooner to Ontario than Las Vegas.

"It's important to get flying again quickly," Cifuentez told the City Council. "If folks get comfortable with not having service in Visalia, it will be very difficult to restart it."

Great Lakes was originally chosen in October by the Department of Transportation to replace Air Midwest, but Las Vegas logistics kept it grounded. In the meantime, prices for aircraft fuel have soared to the point where, even with a combined federal subsidy of more than $1.8 million a year for its Merced and Visalia routes, the service could not be profitable.

Visalia and Merced are both federal Essential Air Service cities. The EAS program was created by Congress in 1978 to ensure smaller cities have connections to major airline hubs. Many EAS markets are subsidized to make the service profitable.

Cifuentez said Visalia and Merced asked the Department of Transportation to seek new proposals "more reflective of today's economic times and fuel prices."

Great Lakes' new bid seeks a combined subsidy of more than $3 million for the Visalia and Merced routes.

Chuck Howell, chief executive of Great Lakes, did not return two calls Monday to discuss his company's proposal.

The airline would use 19-seat Beechcraft 1900-D turboprop airplanes for its service. It's not clear how quickly the airline would be able to start flying at Visalia or Merced if its bid is accepted by the Department of Transportation.

Cifuentez said Ontario provides opportunities for business travelers hankering for flights into Southern California since Skywest Airlines pulled out of Visalia in September 2005.

But since 2005, he added, Las Vegas has emerged as a popular option for flights from Visalia.

"We have a demonstrated demand for about 700 to 800 passengers a month going to Las Vegas as a destination, whether for conventions or for pleasure," Cifuentez said.

"In an ideal world, we would have service to both Las Vegas and to Southern California," he added.

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