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.
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.
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.