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.
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 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 that 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.
On 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.