A city that's had its share of airline upheaval in recent years now has a tough decision ahead of it.
After Phoenix-based Mesa Air Group announced in May that it wanted out of its federal contract to fly from Visalia and Merced to Las Vegas, the company did an about-face Thursday and submitted one of three bids for a new subsidized agreement with the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Mesa's bid, which surprised local officials, proposes the same Las Vegas service it has offered for eight months -- four flights a day, two with stops first in Merced -- but with a larger federal subsidy.
The other bidders are Great Lakes Aviation of Cheyenne, Wyo., proposing two nonstop flights each day between Visalia and Las Vegas; and Vision Air, proposing one daily round-trip loop between Merced, Visalia and Long Beach and a second daily loop between Merced, Visalia and North Las Vegas.
The Department of Transportation will solicit comments from the community and ask for recommendations from city leaders as it reviews the Mesa, Great Lakes and Vision proposals before awarding a contract.
At stake is millions of dollars in subsidies under the federal Essential Air Service program, created to ensure that smaller airport markets continued to have service to a major airline hub after the airline industry was deregulated in 1978.
Mesa Air now receives $1.6 million a year for its combined Visalia/Merced service. Its new bid asks for a subsidy of $3.2 million, compared with $1.1 million for Great Lakes Aviation and $1.3 million for Vision Air.
"We'll definitely need to gauge how the community feels, what the community wants," Visalia Municipal Airport Manager Mario Cifuentez said. "I think it will be interesting to see what the public feels is best."
Travel professionals point to Mesa's existing flights under the US Airways Express brand as a big advantage.
"What our customers look for is good connections," said Selma Evans, an agent with Lewis Travel in Visalia. "The good part about Mesa and the US Airways combo is they fly just about every place in the U.S., as well as to Europe and South America."
Steve Griffiths, owner of Executive Travel in Tulare, agreed.
"I think it's really important that if the [subsidy] money is going to be spent, we need to keep a brand name here," he said. "Having a low-cost, national carrier like US Airways in this market positions Visalia to be on all the route maps."
Cifuentez said the city backed Great Lakes when it bid against Mesa Air Group last fall to replace Scenic Air, but acknowledged the advantages Mesa brings to the game.
"They're already here, they've got systems in place and they fly to a major hub in Las Vegas," he said. "But we've got concerns about cancellations; we're going to need to have substantial conversations with them to see how they're going to improve their performance."
Visalia is one of more than a dozen markets in which Air Midwest, a subsidiary of Mesa Air Group, served notice this year that it wished to be freed from its federal Essential Air Service commitments.
On May 22, the airline notified the U.S. Department of Transportation of its intention to suspend service in Visalia and Merced; Ely, Nev.; Roswell and Alamogordo, N.M.; and Cedar City, Moab and Vernal, Utah.
Less than three weeks earlier, on May 3, Air Midwest served a similar notice for DuBois, Franklin and Lancaster, Pa.; Hagerstown, Md.; Greenbrier, White Sulphur Springs and Lewisburg, W.Va.; and Athens, Ga.
In addition, expiring Air Midwest contracts were awarded to other airlines earlier this year in Carlsbad and Hobbs, N.M., and Massena, Ogdensburg and Watertown, Pa.
Jeffrey Hartz, planning manager for Mesa Air Group, said the company hopes it can warm up any cold shoulders in Visalia and Merced over the airline's notice of termination.
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