Air Service in Chico – Unhappy Anniversary

Today, 2 December 2015, marks a year since Chico lost all commercial air service for the first time in probably 50 or more years when United Express/SkyWest Airlines left town. I wrote about the last day of service in a blog post at the time called “End of an Era, now what?

So a year later can we say that commercial service is anywhere on the horizon?

No. Not hardly.

The Chico airport is a sad place. Were it not for Hertz’s continued presence the doors would be permanently locked and the terminal absolutely lifeless.

A perpetually silent ticket counter.

A perpetually silent ticket counter.

Recapping the twists and turns leading up to United Express/SkyWest’s cessation of service and since then would take too long and can be found elsewhere in Enterprise-Record articles. If it’s a subject that already interests you then you probably know most of the story.

Where will things go from here?

After the management proposal from AvPORTS was voted down by the City Council on 17 November, City Manager Mark Orme was directed to return to the Council with alternatives. Presumably (and I hope) Orme will come back to the Council with a proposal and funding for a new City-employed airport manager. While the AvPORTS proposal was widely panned for being too expensive, virtually everyone who spoke in opposition to it also appeared to support the City directly employing an airport manager.

No one sees Jake Early's Chico prints upon arrival in Chico anymore.

No one sees Jake Early’s Chico prints upon arrival in Chico anymore.

As I’ve said to the Council several times and written about in the “Air Service in Chico” blog series, having an airport manager is indispensable to changing the direction of the airport. An asset as significant as an airport requires a person dedicated to that role, who is accountable, and who is passionate about it. Rod Dinger, Redding’s now retired airport manager was the man whom AvPORTS would have tapped to be the Chico airport manager.

Since it appears that we can’t have Rod Dinger without having AvPORTS then the person chosen for the job should be a lot like Rod: knowledgeable, experienced, and thoroughly consumed by the mission. And preferably with experience at another airport with commercial air service.

I realize that the swirl of issues around the airport is a lot more than just commercial air service and includes general aviation, the FBO (fixed base operator of aviation services), real estate development, and more. But unless the City makes a conscious decision that Chico’s days of having commercial service are over and there will be no pursuit of airlines, then the person hired should have some background in working with commercial carriers.

And what about commercial service?

The TSA's former holding area.

The TSA’s former holding area.

Should Chico give it up and accept that Sacramento is our default airport? Or do we recognize that air service is necessary for economic development, and roll up our sleeves for the long term project of bringing airlines back?

First off, those who say that Chico will never carry much traffic are ignoring or forgetting that in 2000 when there were six United Express flights daily except Saturday (180 seats out and 180 seats in) more than 20% of the passengers originating in Chico’s catchment area flew in and out of Chico.

Secondly, Santa Rosa, the city we like to look at for inspiration, went from zero flights between October 2001 and March 2007, to what in March 2016 will be 49 weekly flights to LAX, San Diego, Orange County, Portland, and Seattle on just one airline: Alaska Airlines’ Horizon Air subsidiary. The airport still bleeds plenty of traffic to San Francisco and Oakland, but they carry healthy and growing passenger loads from Santa Rosa. At some point they expect to get eastbound regional jet service to Phoenix (American), Denver (United), or Salt Lake City (Delta).

Third, in the Chico Chamber of Commerce’s survey about air service conducted late last year nearly 25% of businesses already located in Chico stated that the loss of air service was either a critical issue (9.3%) or an obstacle (15.5%). 51.6% reported that it was either a minor inconvenience or not an issue at all.

While some might take comfort that half of the existing businesses didn’t think the loss of air service was important, the fact that 25% felt that it was critical or significant should raise an alarm.

Perhaps more important are the businesses who aren’t here but might consider Chico. No one can quantify how many businesses would reject Chico because it doesn’t have its own air service, but for anyone to say that some companies or individuals wouldn’t reject Chico out of hand because it lacks an airline is flat out wrong.

For those who travel frequently on business the idea of relocating to a city from which every business trip must begin and end with a minimum hour and a half drive on a not very safe highway could easily be a deal breaker.

But there's no one here to welcome to Chico.

But there’s no one here to welcome to Chico.

Chico is a nice place but it’s not the only nice place. But it’s now a nice place from where it is impossible to fly anywhere without a long drive. Looking at other medium size cities with California State University campuses we see Arcata/Eureka (Humboldt State), Santa Rosa (Sonoma State), Monterey (Cal State Monterey Bay), and San Luis Obispo (Cal Poly) all with active commercial airports.

In fact, Chico State will share with Cal State Stanislaus the dubious distinction of being the CSU campuses the furthest away from commercial air service. Will this hurt Chico State’s efforts at recruiting students? It certainly won’t help, especially with foreign students.

Of course, no one who advocates for commercial air service can cite specific numbers of businesses that would come here if we had airline service.
But a city that doesn’t have its own air service will fail the test for some companies and individuals for whom that’s a requirement, not a nice-to-have. It might even fail the test with some enterprises that are already here when they consider expanding locally.

Doesn’t Chico want to be able to make the best possible case to every prospective business seeking to grow or relocate here?

Isn’t that worth some time, money, and dedication?

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Car rental – One way car rentals to and from the Sacramento airport

In January ’09 I wrote a blog post suggesting using a rental car to get to airports outside of Chico. Since then Chico has gone from a one-horse town as far as airlines go, to a no-horse town which means 100% of the time people from this area must get to another airport, usually Sacramento, in order to fly anywhere.

Recently a friend brought to my attention the current low cost of one-way rentals with Budget between Chico and the Sacramento airport.

Prices are always subject to change, but over a two week period I checked in the first half of November rates one-way from Chico to the airport for a 24 hour rental for an economy to full size car ranged from $38-$48 on the low side to $44-$53 on the high side. Going the opposite direction (from the airport to Chico) rates ranged from $33-37 on the low side to $71-87 on the high side. The prices include tax but nothing optional such as rental company insurance, prepaid fuel, and so on. They also do not include possible discounts you may enjoy such as AAA, Costco, etc.

Why would you want to use a rental car to get to the airport?

If you’re flying round-trip and have a car you may not want to pay the cost of parking if you’re going to be gone for a long period or do not want your car sitting unattended. If you’re going to be gone for a couple of weeks, it would almost certainly be less expensive to use two one-way car rentals than to pay for parking.

Maybe you can get a ride from a friend in one direction but not in the other. Use a car rental for the other direction.

Perhaps you’re only flying one-way from (or to) Sacramento so you can’t leave a car there.

Another reason to love using a car rental is that you get to pick exactly when you want to leave. You’re not dependent on a friend’s schedule or the very limited and slow shuttle service from Chico that is the only other option.

Car rentals are priced in 24 hour periods so you could pick up your car the day before and drop it off within 24 hours of the time you picked up the car.

Note that you can also use Budget for one-way rentals to the three Bay Area airports (San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose) but the prices will be higher.

Budget has two locations in Chico: one on the Esplanade north of East Avenue and the other at Sears in the Chico Mall. Other Chico car rental companies also offer one-way rentals to and from Sacramento and Bay Area airports but their prices are generally higher.

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Air Service in Chico – End of an era, now what?


Chico airport from my window on 1 December

I was on Horizon Air’s very first flight in March 2007 from Santa Rosa to Los Angeles and back.  That was a festive occasion, and the culmination of years of hard work by many committed people in a region that persevered on a long term goal to bring back service after losing it in 2001.

Seven and half years later, this week I made another unnecessary plane trip but not a festive one: on Monday, 1 December, I flew from Chico to San Francisco on United Airlines 5290, on the second to last day of service.  The following day, 2 December, I was confirmed to return on United flight 5323 on what was to have been the very last flight into Chico.

Text message from United

In a bit of irony that some will say merely shows that SkyWest Airlines service in Chico died in the same way it lived, I received a text message notifying me that United flight 5323 was canceled due to weather and air traffic control issues in San Francisco.  (I ended up renting a car in downtown Oakland and driving back to Chico.)

What would have been the second to last inbound flight to Chico, United 5307, in fact became the last flight into Chico.  The plane turned around, became United 5290 back to SFO (the one I took the day before), and thus commercial air service quietly ended in Chico after who knows how many decades.  I’m sure it has been at least 50 years, but I don’t know for certain.

Departure screen at SFO for United 5303 - note Bidwell Mansion.

Departure screen at SFO for United 5303 on 2 December – note Bidwell Mansion. A friend of mine happened to be on this flight and snapped this photo.

When I wrote the “Air Service in Chico” blog series in 2013, I proposed a “Preserve, Promote, and Expand” approach.  In the last installment of the series, I wrote of my fear that if we didn’t preserve and promote, we ran the risk of losing what we had and then having nothing left to expand.  That day has come.

For those who seem so eager to dance on SkyWest’s grave, bear in mind that Chico is now entering uncharted territory with which no one here has any experience.  When this morning I returned the Hertz car I rented in Oakland to get back to Chico after the cancellation of my flight, I saw that the TSA staff was already dismantling the holding area and luggage screening tables.

TSA holding area - 3 December

TSA holding area – 3 December

We really don’t know how difficult it will be to restart service now that it’s lost.  Remember, it’s the federal government that manages nearly all of the various agencies that administer the system of civil aviation.

But does it really matter to the people and businesses in Chico that they are no longer directly connected by air to the great wide world?  Perhaps not.

A Chamber of Commerce sponsored committee (“Airline Attraction & Feasibility Committee”) composed of City Council and Airport Commission members, businesspeople, and others including myself, wants to find out.

Two surveys are currently out: one is for the general public and the other for business enterprises in the area with substantial travel budgets.  The goal of both surveys is to determine the depth and intensity of interest in mounting a serious effort to attract new air service.

While both surveys are useful, the survey of the business community is the more important.  It specifically asks businesses to what extent, if any, they are willing to commit money into a long term effort to win and support new air service to Chico.

The first task the money is needed for is to underwrite (if the City won’t) a professionally compiled passenger traffic study that measures how many trips originate annually from our region and to what destinations.  Without a city having such a study in hand, no airline will even entertain a conversation about service.

In the event that Chico does interest an airline in providing service, a second and larger need for money will be to serve as a revenue guarantee for the airline in the first year or two when the service is new.  For those who think that the airline should just take a chance and see how things go, please know that it just doesn’t work that way for small cities like ours.

Let me be clear.

Without that financial support there is no reason to spend a great deal more time on the subject.  Our efforts would be better spent working to encourage a business to provide frequent nonstop ground shuttle service to Sacramento from Chico.  (This is a worthwhile goal even if air service were to return to Chico, since there will always be a large traffic in people from our area using the Sacramento airport.)


United 5290 on the ground in San Francisco, 1 December

Let me be blunt.

Other than possible air taxi service (point-to-point service in small aircraft that is not part of a network, does not deliver TSA screened passengers into a another airport’s security “clean” area, and does not exchange passengers and baggage with other carriers) there simply will not be an airline that suddenly has the idea to fly to Chico because it’s some wonderful opportunity that it just hasn’t been aware of.

I’m sorry to break this to the good citizens of Chico but there isn’t a queue of airlines licking their chops waiting to take over where SkyWest left off.

I’ve lived in Chico for sixteen years, and in all of that time only one airline besides United/SkyWest has expressed any interest in flying here.  Nothing came of it because the airport’s infrastructure was not adequate, and even if it had been, the carrier would not have been useful except for leisure travelers.

And in those sixteen years, the environment for service to small and medium size cities has only gotten tougher.

Chico is one of many similarly sized (and larger) cities facing reductions or complete cessation of service.  Even in huge metropolitan areas, major airports that will never lose air service are facing reductions as carriers concentrate their flights in a region’s goliath airport.  (Oakland and San Jose, for example, have been losing service to San Francisco.)

My boarding pass

My last boarding pass

Yet time and time again here, I’ve heard many people say that “they” should fly to Chico.

Who is this “they”?

There isn’t some entity that can compel an airline to provide service to a specific city in the United States.  If “they” do not wish to serve Chico, then “they” do not have to.

It’s the “we” that this city and this region must concentrate on if there is to be a seriousness of purpose in restoring commercial air service.

We need a strategy that consists of three essential components:

– A knowledgeable and passionate airport manager

– Long-term political leadership by one or more elected officials

– An enthusiastic and financially supportive business community that sees economic value in having its own air service

With all three of these in place, then over time we will at least have a chance to make our case to air carriers for whom Chico might be a fit.  Nothing is guaranteed even with the best of efforts, but at least we’d be in the game.  Both Santa Rosa and Redding set sterling examples for us to emulate.

But without any one of these components, it will only be a half-baked attempt compared with other cities that have real fire in the belly.  Frankly it would be a waste of time.  And sadly, right now Chico cannot check off even one of these three boxes.

What will it be, Chico?

Air Service in Chico – navigational links
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Air Service in Chico – Community Travel Survey

The Airline Attraction Committee, a joint effort of the Chico Chamber of Commerce, the City of Chico, and the Airport Commission, created a Community Travel Survey to gauge air travel use and attitudes among residents of Chico and surrounding communities, as well as by those who live elsewhere but visit Chico from time to time.

While not scientific, this survey is one of two important opening steps in determining whether there is a sufficient level of interest in pursuing commercial air service after United Express/SkyWest ceases service to Chico effective 2 December 2014. (The other important step is a simultaneous separate survey of larger businesses in the Chico area.)

Please send the link to the survey to your friends and colleagues and consider putting it on your Facebook page.  We are aiming for at least 1000 responses. You do not need to actually be a current user of the Chico airport, but you do need to be someone who is at least an occasional air traveler, whether it’s from Chico, Sacramento, or other airports.  The survey will be taken down on 2 December.

Here’s the link to the survey:

Click on the “Take Survey Here” button in the web page above.

It should take between 8 to 12 minutes to complete the survey.

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Chico business community invited to meeting about Chico’s air service

Next Thursday, 13 March, at 6 pm, the Chico Chamber of Commerce is sponsoring a meeting to discuss Chico’s commercial air service.  All interested members of the Chico area business community, Chamber members or not, are encouraged to attend.

The headlining speaker at the event will be Paul Kelley, a four term former member of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors.

After Santa Rosa lost all of its air service in October 2001, Kelley led the effort that resulted in Horizon Air launching flights to Santa Rosa from Los Angeles and Seattle in March 2007.  (Since then service has expanded to Portland and San Diego.)  The approach he created was long-term and comprehensive, a model that Chico should emulate if it is interested in preserving and expanding its commercial air service.

There is no charge to attend the event, but the Chamber asks all attendees to register either by phone (891-5556) or by email (  The location of the meeting depends on how many people register.

13MAR14 - Air Service

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United Express bargain fares to San Francisco

Most people who fly out of Chico to San Francisco on United Express do so in order to connect with a flight to a further destination.  Furthermore prices have historically been relatively high for those only flying the short segment to SFO.

But right now the fares for travel purely between Chico and San Francisco are a flat-out bargain that make it worth your while to consider flying when you need to get to San Francisco.

The prices below are for one person and include all of the taxes.  They do not include optional fees such as for checked baggage.  The code in parentheses is the fare basis code that references the rules.  The first letter of the fare basis is the seat inventory code that must be available in order to get the rate.  Naturally these fares are nonrefundable and nonchangeable.

Round-trip, 21-day advance purchase, Saturday night minimum stay: $98 (KE21N2SC)

One way, 14-day advance purchase: $59 (LA14N2SC)

One-way, 7-day advance purchase: $79 (TA7N2SC)

One way, 3-day advance purchase: $89 (SA3N2SC)

One way, no advance purchase: $99 (WA0N2SC)

One limitation to be aware of is that these fares are not valid for the first flight of the day, which currently departs Chico at 6:00 a.m.  No flight restrictions apply in the opposite direction.

While you might be focused on the low-cost round-trip fare, using the service one way can really make sense.  Imagine that your spouse is working during the week in the Bay Area, and you want to join him or her to spend the weekend in the City.  It would be way more costly to drive a second car down there – why not just fly down on Friday and then drive back together?

Remember, too, that BART runs directly into SFO.  Step off the plane, hop on BART and you’ll be in downtown San Francisco in about 30 minutes.  Alternatively a 12 minute ride on BART to Millbrae lets you connect with frequent Caltrain service down the Peninsula as far as San Jose and Gilroy.

But it’s not just for Chicoans.  Tell your Bay Area friends about this so they can wing it to Chico and skip the drive.

Airline fares change relentlessly so what gives now may be completely different in an hour.  But I’ve been seeing these fares in the market for at least a month so maybe United is experimenting to see if it can stimulate traffic.

UA tariff display CICSFO 10JAN14

Fare display: Chico-San Francisco


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Air Service in Chico – Where do we go from here?

For readers of the “Air Service in Chico” series, you may be wondering if there is any path to improving the service we have or to seek additional service.

While there isn’t a kit backed by a money-back guarantee that a medium sized city like Chico can purchase to “Get Better Air Service”, there are steps that can be taken that at least lead in the right direction even though there is no assurance of success.


If you live in Chico then you know that the City of Chico has significant financial issues.  The business community will need to be the ones who pony up money to pay for the passenger air traffic study and revenue guarantees without which there most assuredly will not be additional air service.

Air Traffic Study

In more flush times, the City twice commissioned air service consultancies to produce studies of the Chico air service market.  Contrary to some assumptions, there isn’t a button on some website that an airline can click to aggregate the disparate streams of air passenger traffic that emanate from a particular city or region.

Statistics like this can only come from a detailed study that measures the total number of trips taken from what is called a “catchment area”: a geographic area that is the natural origin market for a specific airport.  Such a study would measure the number of passengers living in the Chico catchment area who fly out of Chico vs. out of a nearby major airport (Sacramento, San Francisco, etc.) and what their destinations are.  Airlines won’t even consider a serious conversation about air service from a requesting city unless it can supply the numbers from an air traffic study.

Revenue guarantees

Our neighbor Redding is a city that faces a very similar air service environment to Chico, as I wrote about in an earlier chapter in this series.  Redding has been actively courting airlines and has the money to back it up.  Airport Manager Rod Dinger, working closely with Mark Lascelles, president of the Shasta Economic Development Corporation, has raised nearly a million dollars for the Redding Airline Travel Bank.  The purpose of the travel bank is to indicate seriousness of purpose on the part of the business community.  Rather than just paying lip-service to the goal of more air service, they deposit money into a travel bank to back the new service for a year.  Participants in a travel bank can then use the funds they deposited to buy airline tickets when new service is launched, otherwise it is refunded if additional air service cannot be found.  Armed with this money already collected, Redding is more likely to be given a hearing when it approaches an airline.

If you think that an airline should just take the chance and fly to Chico, and then see how things work out, forget it.  In large cities it works that way because the airlines are reasonably certain of the travel market, especially if they already serve the city.  For small cities like Chico with a thin market that mostly bleeds to a nearby major airport, the airlines will not experiment with costly assets like aircraft and personnel unless the first year’s operations are guaranteed.

Leadership from the “electeds”

Santa Rosa lost its commercial air service from United Express shortly after 9/11.  One man in particular led the charge to bring back air service and that was Paul Kelley, a member of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors.  Working closely with the business community and the airport manager, Kelley worked tirelessly and ultimately successfully in landing Horizon Air (Alaska Airlines) service to Los Angeles and Seattle (and now also to Portland and San Diego).  I met Paul Kelley on the inaugural Horizon Air flight to Los Angeles in 2007 and was impressed with his manner and diligence.

And diligence is what it takes.  Having one or two elected politicians commit to an ongoing and long-term leadership role would be very useful in providing a face and continuity to Chico’s efforts.

I would suggest two members of the Chico City Council for such a role: Randall Stone and Sean Morgan.  They represent different political points of view which is good, they both have business backgrounds, and they were both recently elected, which means they have another three years before they face reelection.

What next?

Recently I had a conversation with Rod Dinger, Redding’s airport manager.  He told me that prior to the current push for additional service, he and the Shasta Economic Development Corporation convened a meeting with local business leaders to gauge their feelings about air service.

Were they satisfied with the current service or did they want more service out of Redding?  If so, to what destinations, and were they willing to consider putting money into an air travel bank in order to lure more flights?  Or were they content with using Sacramento for most of their air travel?  The response they received encouraged them to step up efforts to secure additional service from Redding, and as I wrote earlier in this post, directly solicit the business community for cash pledges for the Redding Airline Travel Bank.

I think a meeting like this in Chico would be useful.  In the fifteen years I’ve lived in Chico all I’ve ever heard is local businesses gripe about the air service, but they have never been asked what, if anything, they are willing to undertake in order to improve the service.  Whether it is organized by the City’s Airport Commission, the Chico Chamber of Commerce, or some other entity, I think such a meeting is called for.  Perhaps the business community’s interest is not very deep, in which case it would be pointless to pursue additional service.  Or maybe they feel strongly about it, and are willing to put their money and energy behind it.  We need to find out one way or the other, and then proceed from there.

In conclusion – Preserve, Promote, and (maybe) Expand

Until and if there is anything further to write about in connection with Chico’s air service, this is the end of the “Air Service in Chico” series.  I would like to be optimistic and write that expansion of our service is right around the corner but there’s nothing on the horizon to suggest that now.

If anything, given the middling performance of the flights to San Francisco that we currently have, I wonder if the opposite would be more likely: a cessation of service by United Airlines leaving Chico without any commercial flights whatsoever.

For that reason alone, I encourage the City and the business community to at least consider the first two parts of the “Preserve, Promote, and Expand” approach I set forth in a post earlier in the series.  Failing to preserve and promote, could lead to a situation where there is nothing left to expand.


Air Service in Chico – navigational links
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Air Service in Chico – Expand, part 2

In the previous post I looked at the issue of expansion of air service in the existing Chico-San Francisco market.  Here in part 2, I’m going to write about airlines adding service to other cities.

In the now rather distant past, Chico had commercial air service to cities other than San Francisco and by airlines other than United.  I referred to some of this service in the “History” chapter earlier in the series.

Studies conducted by consultancies hired by the City in the late 1990s and again in 2005 showed that the highest demand destination from Chico was greater Los Angeles: LAX, Orange County, Burbank, and Ontario.  (Long Beach was not on the list.)

In the ’05 study, the next five biggest demand cities were also all in our region: San Diego, Seattle, Las Vegas, Portland, and Phoenix.  The next four markets to round out the top ten were Chicago (O’Hare and Midway), Denver, New York (all three airports), and then surprisingly San Francisco itself.

United logo

Late in 2012, the City of Chico wrote a letter to United Airlines asking them to consider adding a nonstop Chico-LAX flight.  In the spring a United Airlines manager contacted Debbie Collins, the City’s management analyst for the airport and essentially said “no” for reasons that came as no surprise.  Rather than recapitulate what he said, here is a link to the Enterprise-Record’s article about it.

In its reply to the City, United indicated that it would probably not entertain the notion of service to both San Francisco and Los Angeles.  If that were the only way to obtain United service to LAX then I don’t think it would be a very good trade: as a connecting city LAX is much further from Chico and United does not offer the same breadth of service there that they do out of San Francisco.


What other carriers then?  The obvious ones are the three large network airlines: Delta, American, and US Airways.  (If the proposed merger between the latter two goes through then it would just be Delta and American.)  Both Delta logoDelta and American have a large bank of flights out of LAX so it would likely be viable as a connecting city as well as the main event: traffic purely between Chico and LAX.  Naturally any service would be offered on smaller aircraft operated by the junior partners of American Eagle or Delta Connection.

Another carrier that Chico would love to land is Alaska Airlines’s Horizon Airlines subsidiary, which flies the 76 passenger Bombardier Q400 turboprop.  Horizon Airlines is the carrier that operated Redding and Arcata/Eureka-LAX until 2010.  The only intra-California flights Alaska logothat Horizon currently operates to LAX are from San Jose, Santa Rosa and Mammoth Lakes.  Alaska doesn’t have a particularly rich bank of connections of its own in LAX except for Mexico, but Alaska is an especially promiscuous code-share partner being in bed with both American and Delta, as well as a number of foreign carriers.  Alaska has lately been adding to its intra-California San Diego service with flights from Fresno, Monterey, and Santa Rosa, and seasonal service from Mammoth.

Besides heading south, the other direction for new service is east to one of the closer big hub cities.  Just three are in the realm of possibility and they include Denver (United), Salt Lake City (Delta), and Phoenix (US Airways now, American Airlines if the merger goes through).  Redding was unsuccessful in a recent effort to obtain United service to Denver and I doubt Chico would fare otherwise.

Service to Salt Lake would be my personal favorite because it is the most reliable hub airport in the land.  Unfortunately Delta has been pruning its Delta Connection service from Salt Lake to smaller California cities so it’s unlikely that Chico would get much of a hearing.

US Airways logoOn the other hand US Airways Express currently operates regional jet service to its huge hub in Phoenix from some of the smaller airports in central and southern California including Monterey (3 flights), Santa Barbara (5 flights), San Luis Obispo (3 flights), Bakersfield (3 flights), and Fresno (5 flights).  As previously mentioned, Phoenix is one of the top 10 destinations for Chicoans, plus the array of flights from Sacramento to Phoenix is far less than from Sacramento to the L.A. basin.

The only other direction flights can go would be to the north, and the only logical carrier for that would be Alaska Airlines/Horizon Air, but the fact that they dropped long standing northbound service three years ago from Arcata/Eureka and Redding suggests that luring them to Chico for northbound service would be difficult.

Any airline that Chico pursues must be one that can provide service not just to the city to which it flies directly from Chico, but additionally via its own service and its code-share partners to many other cities from the connecting point.

Other carriers out there include jetBlue, Frontier, Spirit, and Allegiant, each with its own strategy, but factors specific to each airline make them unlikely, undesirable, or both, as a match for Chico.

What about Southwest?

Impossible now, because Southwest flies a pure Boeing 737 fleet, and Chico is way too small to support that size of aircraft and the frequency that Southwest typically brings to a market.  However in the unlikely event that Southwest were ever to add a smaller aircraft type to its fleet then it might be different.

Interestingly, an unabashed Southwest imitator in Canada, WestJet, very recently did that very thing.  Like Southwest, they began small (in 1996) but have grown to become Canada’s second largest airline after Air Canada.  Like Southwest, they began with and have stuck to an all Boeing 737 fleet, up until the launch of WestJet Encore in June of this year.  WestJet Encore exclusively flies the Bombardier Q400 turboprop (like Alaska’s Horizion Air subsidiary) and uses it the same way to serve smaller cities in order to bring passengers to their hub cities.

There is no indication whatsoever that Southwest is contemplating a move to imitate the airline that imitated it, but nothing in the airline industry is etched in steel.  Were it to happen, the most likely Southwest hub cities in the west to support such a service would be Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Oakland, and Phoenix, and any one of those cities would have Chico salivating.  But there is nothing to indicate Southwest has even considered this.

To get back to reality and wrap this up, if Chico ever makes a sustained effort to attract new service the network airlines of United, Delta, American, and US Airways (the latter two separately or together if their merger goes through), and Alaska Airlines/Horizon Air are the logical carriers to court.

The next and last post in this series will be a look at what a serious effort to get additional service might entail.


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Air Service in Chico – Expand, part 1

There are two ways we can seek to expand.  One is for United to increase the frequency of service in our existing Chico-San Francisco market.  The other is to work for flights to new destinations.

In this post I’ll focus on expansion in our existing San Francisco market.  This is the simpler goal.  We already have an airline, United Airlines/SkyWest Airlines, that flies the route, and they used to offer twice as many flights as they do now.  When I flew frequently between Chico and Washington, DC, there were six daily flights each direction, but now there are only three.

UAX in CIC - 3I made this point in the Reliability post and I’ll make it again: the more flights that operate, the less likelihood there is of problems, because redundancy is built into the schedule.  But there is another interesting phenomenon that usually occurs with all modes of public transportation: aviation, rail, and buses.  When frequency is added, it stimulates demand for the entire schedule, not just the new service.  It makes sense.

Imagine you have three flights daily to San Francisco (9 a.m., 1 p.m., and 5 p.m.) and three return flights (8 a.m., 12 noon, and 4 p.m.).  None of those flights work well for you on the outbound, so it doen’t matter that the return flight at 4 pm was perfect.  You end up driving.  But then a new 6 a.m. flight from Chico to San Francisco was added.  On the next occasion for a trip to San Francisco you took the 6 a.m. flight to get there, and the preexisting 4 p.m. flight to return.  Both new and existing service benefited from the addition of the 6 a.m. flight to San Francisco.

San Francisco gets knocked for its runway situation (two side-by-side runways, which under adverse weather conditions results in constricted take-offs and landings) but the fact of the matter is that SFO is the number one airport in northern California, and there isn’t even a close second.

In 2011 SFO boarded over 20 million passengers, # 7 of all airports in the United States.  By comparison, Oakland (OAK) was # 36 at 4.5  million, Sacramento (SMF) # 40 at not quite 4.4 million, and San Jose # 44 at 4.1 million.  (Wikipedia article about busiest airports.)

United Airlines’ share of the pie in SFO in 2012 according to the San Francisco Business Times was over 46%.

Chico has the right carrier to the nearest major airport in our region with the greatest number of connecting flights to an excellent array of domestic and international destinations.

But in order to get more flights to San Francisco we need to do better now at filling seats out of Chico.

For a long time, the load factors (percentage of seats filled with paying passengers) on the United Airlines/SkyWest flights to San Francisco have been less than stellar.  Using the Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics website you can see these numbers for yourself.  Go to this website, select “SkyWest Airlines” and “Chico CA – Chico Municipal”, click “Submit”, scroll down and then click on the “Load Factor” column header.

You’ll see summaries for each year and then monthly figures, that (as of now) begin in 2002.

Most of the numbers are in the 50% and 60% range.  Just a handful of times on a monthly basis has Chico broken the 70% mark and never on an annual basis.  Now change the airport to “Redding”.  You’ll see much better numbers there with many months breaking well past 70% and the annual performances easily exceeding Chico.  Make the airport “Arcata/Eureka” and you’ll see still better numbers with most years producing load factors in excess of 70%.

Let’s face it: in our neck of the woods Chico is the slacker airport.

The fact that Redding had high numbers during the summer of 2012 may be why United Airlines added a fourth flight in the RDD-SFO market for the summer of 2013.  Chico’s summer numbers in 2012 were dismal so we remain at three flights this summer.

And Arcata/Eureka has six or seven daily flights to SFO and two to Sacramento.  Yes, they are far more remote than Chico is from a major airport but that is beside the point: they fill a lot more of their flights than Chico does.

And who can blame United?  It’s not good business running half-full planes.  If I were a schedule planner at United I would make the same decisions.

Which brings me back to back to the “Promote” element of the “Preserve, Promote, and Expand” approach.  In order to make the service more viable we need more flights, but I don’t think United will want to deploy more assets unless it sees the current level of frequency delivering better results.  And the only way it will produce better results is if there is a long-term and effective effort to promote the service.

There is no harm in asking United to increase the number of flights, but we should be prepared to hear “no” as long as the numbers are they way they’ve been for many years.  At the same time we should enroll United as our partner in promoting the service that will deliver the results that will make them want to increase the frequency as well as make other airlines sit up and take notice.

Is there a conundrum here?  A little.  Admittedly the service we have now isn’t great with limited frequency and reliability issues.  But it also isn’t as bad as some think.  Working with United on the reliability, scheduling, and fare issues, while at the same time promoting the service that exists is the only game we have and we need to play like we mean it.


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Air Service in Chico – Emergency, Emergency

In an amusing 1966 movie from my childhood, “The Russians are coming, the Russians are coming”, there is a scene where a Russian in heavily accented English shouts, “Emergency, emergency – everyone to get from street”.

For reasons not clear to me, this scene came to my mind as a light way to introduce a serious subject, and one that I certainly didn’t expect to have to write midway through my “Air Service in Chico” blog series.

Chico Fire Station 3

Chico Fire Department Station 3

The “emergency, emergency” I’m referring to is a threat to the very existence of Chico’s commercial air service due to the City’s budget troubles.

Jim Beery, the City of Chico Fire Chief, proposes to close Fire Department Station 3, the fire station at the airport which provides coverage in the event of emergencies there.

Furthermore when asked by a Councilor at the marathon City Council meeting on 18 June, he said he would not provide ARFF.  (ARFF stands for “Aircraft Response and Fire Fighting”)  The FAA does not require an airport of Chico’s size to have a full-time fire station at the airport, but it must at least provide emergency coverage beginning 15 minutes before the arrival of a commercial flight and 15 minutes after its departure.

Without ARFF, the FAA cannot certify an airport for commercial air service thus meaning the end of commercial air service in Chico.

Is this what we have come to?

I don’t work for the City, and I don’t pretend to understand its budgeting process.  I realize that current conditions call for cuts across the board in City departments but they need to find a way at the very least to ensure that ARFF is provided, if they cannot retain the airport fire station altogether.

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United Airlines 5359 taxies to the terminal – 22 June 2013

I made the point in the “Air Service in Chico – Preserve” post, that if commercial air service in Chico goes away, there is a very strong likelihood it will never come back.

When I wrote the “Preserve” post my concern was (and remains) that United Airlines might just say goodbye and no other airline would fill its place; I couldn’t conceive that the City would consider solving a short-term budget issue with a decision that would drive away commercial air service, quite possibly forever.

Well, guess what? – the city’s top fire official is considering that very choice.

If it happens then United Airlines/SkyWest Airlines will redeploy the aircraft and personnel assets allocated to Chico and the TSA apparatus will be disbanded.  And that will be that.

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United Airlines 5359 upon arrival in Chico – 22 June 2013

I hope and trust that the City Council and the City Manager will insist that however the fire chief chooses to make Fire Department cuts, at the very least he will need to provide ARFF for as long as Station 3 is closed.  Anything less than that is unacceptable.  It would make a mockery of Chico’s efforts to be business-friendly by demonstrating our willingness to sacrifice a valuable long-term asset in the interest of short-term expediency.




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