Visalia ready for flight decision: Council likely will recommend Great Lakes to provide service to Vegas.

Sep. 3--VISALIA -- An airline twice passed over by federal transportation officials to provide passenger service in Visalia appears poised to earn the endorsement of local leaders for a subsidized contract.

The Visalia City Council is expected to consider a recommendation Tuesday afternoon by two of its members, as well as from the city's Airport Advisory Committee, to back Great Lakes Aviation as a replacement to fly passengers at Visalia Municipal Airport.

The Wyoming-based airline is one of three companies bidding for a two-year contract under the U.S. Department of Transportation's Essential Air Service program. The program was established to ensure that smaller airport markets continued to have service to major hubs after the airline industry was deregulated in 1978.

Great Lakes is proposing at least two daily flights between Visalia and Las Vegas' McCarran International Airport.

Vice Mayor Greg Kirkpatrick said he and Council Member Bob Link believe Great Lakes is the preferred company among three proposals.

Mesa Air Group announced it wanted out of the two-year commitment it made just last year, but said it is willing to continue service if its federal subsidy is doubled, to $3.2 million.

"This is the third time we've made this recommendation," Kirkpatrick said over the weekend. "We're looking for someone who wants to be a community partner in making air service succeed here.

"And I don't think we're getting that from the current carrier," he said.

Visalia has expressed a preference for Great Lakes Aviation twice before, but each time the city's recommendation was overruled by federal officials -- first in 2005, when SkyWest Airlines ceased its flights to Los Angeles and Scenic Air was selected by the Department of Transportation to fly to North Las Vegas; and last year after Scenic Air pulled out of both Visalia and Merced, with Mesa Air Group selected to take over.

Mesa Air Group/Air Midwest began offering U.S. Airways Express flights between Visalia, Merced and McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas in November. Less than six months later, the company cited rising fuel and maintenance labor costs in announcing that it wants out of its two-year commitment.

The three proposals being considered by the Department of Transportation are:

Great Lakes, proposing two nonstop flights daily between Visalia and Las Vegas. The airline also proposes two nonstop flights daily between Merced and Las Vegas. The combined subsidy it seeks is $1.8 million a year.

Vision Airlines, an upstart airline based in North Las Vegas. Now a tourist and charter service, Vision's proposal calls for daily flights between Visalia and Merced to North Las Vegas and Long Beach. The combined subsidy sought is $1.3 million a year.

Mesa Air Group/Air Midwest, proposing the same Merced/Visalia/Las Vegas service it offers now.

City officials say that while Mesa Air Group/Air Midwest has raised passenger totals, they're disappointed by the airline -- not only by the maneuver to seek a higher subsidy, but by the airline's performance.

"Air Midwest has been plagued by operational issues since the inception and the trend is worsening, rather than improving," Airport Manager Mario Cifuentez states in a report to be presented to the City Council.

"During the month of August, the carrier has canceled 27% of its flights due to maintenance and crew shortage issues."

Officials in Merced also are leaning toward recommending Great Lakes Aviation over Mesa Air Group, Merced Municipal Airport Manager Lloyd Partin said.

Merced's City Council will consider the issue Tuesday, the same day as Visalia's council.

"Mario [Cifuentez] and I are in 110% agreement, we'd like to see our cities get off of the subsidy," Partin said. "I talked to six different airports around the country, and three of them -- all served by Great Lakes -- were able to get off the subsidy and become self-sufficient."

Regardless of the recommendations of the cities, the final decision on which airline wins the contract will be made by the Department of Transportation.

Other factors include the requested amount of subsidy and comments from the flying public.

Last fall, Visalia and Merced were split on their preferences, with Merced backing Mesa Air Group while Visalia supported Great Lakes.

"Hopefully, if both Merced and Visalia make the same recommendation this time, it will carry more weight," Kirkpatrick said.

The reporter can be reached at tsheehan@fresnobee.com or(559) 622-2410.

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