Fresno airport faces costly decisions

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Aug. 12--After building a $1.7 million international arrival and inspection facility, and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars every year to staff it, Fresno Yosemite International Airport officials could face a difficult choice if its lone international flight remains grounded for an extended time.

Does the airport keep paying for customs agents who have no arriving passengers or luggage to screen now that Mexicana Airlines has suspended its flights to and from Guadalajara? Or does it abandon the service, take the savings and jeopardize the potential for hosting future international flights?

For now, city officials can only wait and see what happens with Mexicana, although they have been in discussions with other airlines about establishing another international flight from the airport.

"It's prestigious to have an international flight. I'd rather have one than not have one," said Russell Widmar, the city's airports director. "But it is expensive for us to do this. We don't make money on this flight."

But it would be more expensive -- perhaps $2 million a year, Widmar said -- to try to restart international service if the city pulled the plug.

Mexicana filed for bankruptcy on Aug. 2, and suspended its Fresno service effective Wednesday.

Mexicana's flights generated about $720,000 last year in operating revenue for the airport, Widmar said Wednesday. The revenue figure does not include passenger-facility fees charged on a per-ticket basis to cover some overhead expenses at the airport. Those bring this year's projected revenues to $931,000. The airport's direct operating costs associated with Mexicana were in the neighborhood of $745,000 last year. That doesn't include overhead covered by the passenger fees.

The biggest expense is for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection station at the airport. Widmar said the station has a staff of nine to 10 agents who inspect incoming people, packages and cargo arriving from outside the country, and FYI picks up about $600,000 of the tab for that staffing.

If the customs bill and other support costs associated with Mexicana's service disappeared instantly, the only remaining expenses would be for heating, cooling and maintenance of the inspection building. "When it all shakes out, it would cost about $60,000 a year to keep the building alive, and that's it," Widmar said.

But Widmar said it's far too early to give up on Mexicana. He's optimistic that the beleaguered airline can reorganize itself quickly under bankruptcy protection and resume its popular once-nightly flights.

In the meantime, the city's customs bill is prepaid through Sept. 30. "They're not moving their people out, because they've got other work to do," Widmar said of the agents. "They don't want to close this station, because if we close it, it's going to be very difficult to get it back open again, and I don't want that to happen."

If Mexicana's absence lingers or becomes permanent, or if no other airline steps in to replace Mexicana's international flights, how long would Fresno keep paying for customs before waving the white flag?

"I don't know," Widmar said Wednesday. "It depends on who we're talking to, how quickly [another airline] would respond. I'll have to cross that bridge when we come to it. We're only one day into this thing."

Officials with the Customs and Border Protection field office in San Francisco are also uncertain how long agents would be posted at FYI without any international arrivals to inspect.

"There's no real answer for that," said Ed Low, a Customs spokesman in San Francisco. "So much hinges on what Mexicana is going to do. Until we get a firmer idea of Mexicana's situation, there's not much we can do for our long-range planning."

The agents aren't just sitting around, Low said. Customs agents also process commercial cargo and answer questions from walk-up customers during the day. But Mexicana's passengers -- often filling the 90% or more of the seats on arriving nighttime flights -- and their baggage are the Fresno agents' primary responsibility, he said.

If the station were shuttered and agents reshuffled to other ports of entry, however, FYI would essentially be starting from scratch on a very expensive proposition if another airline wanted to start international flights in the future.

"It becomes a wish and a hope at that point," Widmar said. "Today we can say, 'we're fully equipped to take you now.' "

To reopen a closed station, Widmar said FYI would likely have to pay the full bill, not just half, for the customs staff. Between that tab and an international incentive program that waives airport fees and rents for a carrier for two years to establish a new route, "we'd be taking on one hell of a lot of cost, probably close to $2 million a year, to re-establish ourselves as an international arrival facility."

The reporter can be reached at tsheehan@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6319.

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