Starting Sunday, Fresno fliers will have more options. And that’s just the start of good news

Fresno Yosemite International Airport is growing bigger with $115 million expansion project

Fresno Yosemite International Airport plans $115 million expansion project that will include an expanded international travel area and a three-level parking garage.
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Fresno Yosemite International Airport plans $115 million expansion project that will include an expanded international travel area and a three-level parking garage.

Following what Fresno airport officials called a successful first season, United Airlines is resuming seasonal nonstop flights between Fresno and Chicago starting Sunday.

The flights will take off daily from Fresno Yosemite International Airport at 11:20 p.m. and arrive at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport at 5:20 a.m.; the return leg will leave from Chicago at about 7:30 p.m. and land in Fresno at around 10 p.m., according to the flight schedules on United’s website.

In offering the flights for a second year, United is extending how long it will fly the route. Starting at the end of March is already about eight weeks earlier than in 2018. And when United announced its 2019 schedule last fall, it anticipated continuing through Labor Day in early September. Now, Fresno airport representatives said the the service will continue through early December.

Last year, United offered the Chicago flights through a contract arrangement with Utah-based SkyWest Airlines, which used 76-seat regional jets for the service. This year, United’s schedule indicates that it will use its own larger mainline jets – either Airbus A319 or Boeing 737-700 aircraft, each of which can carry at least 125 passengers.

Between an earlier start and later finish than 2018, and an upgrade to larger jets, there will be many more available seats to and from Chicago for passengers flying through Fresno.

More changes at FYI

United’s service is one aspect of what Fresno airport representatives say will be a busy spring and summer travel season. American Airlines has switched its midday flights to Phoenix from regional jets to the larger Airbus A319 jet, and American added a third daily flight between Fresno and Dallas-Fort Worth.

Delta Air Lines’ flights between Fresno and Salt Lake City are permanently switching to Bombardier CRJ900 regional jets that can carry more passengers than previous flights.

The two airlines that put the “international” in Fresno Yosemite International Airport, Aeromexico and Volaris, are also boosting their schedules. Aeromexico is now flying to and from Guadalajara every night, increasing from five weekly flights previously. And Volaris, which flies daily to Guadalajara, is adding a second daily departure on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

Record-setting year

Figures from the Federal Aviation Administration show that Fresno set a record for the number of passengers flying to and from the airport in 2018 – more than 737,000 arrivals and more than 738,000 boardings on domestic flights within the U.S. Through the first nine months of 2018 (the most complete data available), almost 86,000 people arrived on international flights from Mexico and nearly 80,000 people boarded flights to Mexico.

The growth at Fresno’s airport is spurring improvements, dubbed “FATforward,” to handle a larger volume of passengers, said Kevin Meikle, the city’s director of aviation. (FAT is the airport’s federal code, from its former name Fresno Air Terminal.)

“Last summer, FAT experienced a 21 percent increase in passenger traffic during the July-September travel period,” Meikle said. “As passenger volume continues to grow at a record pace, the FATforward terminal and parking expansion program will be essential” for keeping up with demand.

Work is already started on a new lot at the airport to add more long-term parking; it is expected to be ready in time for the peak summer travel season. Future plans include remodeling the terminal to add an upper-level concourse with two gates and jet bridges that can be used for both domestic and international flights; enlarging the segregated arrival and Customs area for international passengers; expanding the luggage-handling and sorting area for outbound flights; increasing the number of Transportation Security Administration checkpoint lanes; and building a three-level, 900-space parking garage.

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Lifelong Valley resident Tim Sheehan has worked in the Valley as a reporter and editor since 1986, and has been at The Fresno Bee since 1998. He is currently The Bee’s data reporter and covers California’s high-speed rail project and other transportation issues. He grew up in Madera, has a journalism degree from Fresno State and a master’s degree in leadership studies from Fresno Pacific University.