Visalia gives up on air service

Until mid-January, SeaPort Airlines served Visalia with daily flights to Sacramento and Burbank.
Until mid-January, SeaPort Airlines served Visalia with daily flights to Sacramento and Burbank. SeaPort Airlines

After years of unreliable airline service at Visalia airport, the city is giving up on the federal Essential Air Service program that subsidizes air carriers serving small communities.

The issue came to a head for city officials when SeaPort Airlines abruptly ended service in mid-January, citing a pilot shortage.

The city has until Wednesday to comment on Department of Transportation plans to find a new carrier for the community.

Monday night, the Visalia City Council voted 5-0 to notify the Department of Transportation it would apply for $3.7 million under the Community Flexibility Pilot Program set up for communities seeking to leave the Essential Air Service program.

“We’ve been burned time and time again,” Mayor Steve Nelsen said, referring to flight cancellations and dropped service. “It’s an opportunity to rebrand our airport as an executive airport.”

The Visalia airport will remain open for corporate and general aviation, including air cargo.

The Essential Air Service program, established in the 1970s in the wake of airline deregulation, subsidizes airlines that serve smaller communities.

By exiting the program for 10 years and saving the federal government possibly $2.3 to $3.5 million a year in ongoing subsidies, the city will receive $3.7 million in federal money that can only be used for airport upgrades, city officials said.

“It’s a 10-year hiatus or buyout, for lack of a better term,” airport manager Mario Cifuentez said.

After 10 years, if the Essential Air Service program still exists, Visalia can get back in, officials said.

Visalia will be the first in the nation to apply for the funds, Cifuentez said.

Council Member Warren Gubler said the city tried to make the Essential Air Service program work, but marketing was hurt by canceled flights, airlines ending service and different destinations every time a new carrier came in.

Also, if the city didn’t drop out now, Visalia would be at risk of losing the opportunity to seek the $3.7 million, officials said.

“I’m not willing to let a $3.7 million grant go,” Gubler said.

Visalia’s business community supports the council decision to move away from scheduled air service, said Gail Zurek, president and CEO of the Visalia Chamber of Commerce.

“By exploring other ways the business community can utilize the airport, the city is going in the right direction,” she said.

The future of scheduled air service for small communities is bleak, Cifuentez said. Surveys show that 75 percent of Visalia residents who fly will travel to Los Angeles or Fresno for air service, and major air carriers no longer service small communities, he said.

“Travelers will come to (airlines) wherever they are,” he said.

Lewis Griswold: 559-441-6104, @fb_LewGriswold