Carrier must stay in Visalia for now: Air Midwest is ordered to maintain service until a replacement is found.

Jun. 21--VISALIA -- Air Midwest, which began flying between Visalia, Merced and Las Vegas last fall, has been ordered by federal transportation officials to continue service until a replacement airline is found to serve the two Valley cities.

Despite a federal subsidy of up to $1.6 million a year, the subsidiary of Phoenix-based Mesa Air Group announced in May that it wants out of its Essential Air Service contract with the U.S. Department of Transportation.

On May 22, Air Midwest filed a 90-day notice of intent to suspend service to not only Visalia and Merced, but to six other markets it serves in the western United States: Ely, Nev.; Roswell and Alamogordo, N.M.; and Cedar City, Moab and Vernal, Utah.

This week's order by the Department of Transportation bars Air Midwest from pulling out before a new airline is ready to fly.

"Air Midwest's proposed termination of service at these communities would leave them without any scheduled air service, and thus the department must prohibit the carrier from terminating such service at the end of its 90-day notice period," said Michael W. Reynolds, deputy assistant secretary for aviation and international affairs for the Department of Transportation.

"Furthermore, we will require Air Midwest to continue to maintain service at all of these communities ... until we have completed processing the carrier replacement case and the new carrier(s) has actually started service," Reynolds' order states.

Air Midwest flies from Visalia and Merced to Las Vegas' McCarran International Airport under the US Airways Express brand, offering four daily flights between the cities using 19-seat Beech 1900-D turboprop airplanes.

This week's federal order came as no surprise to Air Midwest and Mesa Air Group officials, who expected they would be required to continue flying beyond Aug. 20 despite their 90-day notice.

"We're fully aware of the obligation to stick around and work with the new carrier," Jeffrey Hartz, Mesa Air Group's director of planning, said last month.

The Department of Transportation is giving other interested airlines until July 19 to submit proposals to serve Visalia, Merced or the other markets that Air Midwest wants to vacate. Airlines may bid for any or all of the markets.

Under the Essential Air Service program -- created by Congress after the airline industry was deregulated in 1978 to ensure that smaller communities continued to have air service -- airlines must provide at least 12 flights each week to a major airline hub.

For Visalia and Merced, major hubs include international airports in San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles or Las Vegas.

Visalia Municipal Airport Manager Mario Cifuentez said he has already heard from two airlines interested in the city; neither, however, has yet committed to bidding the EAS contract.

Air Midwest is the third airline to seek an escape from Visalia in two years.

SkyWest Airlines, which flew between Visalia and Los Angeles for about seven years, pulled out of Visalia in September 2005. It was succeeded by Scenic Air, which won a subsidized three-year contract to fly between Visalia and the smaller North Las Vegas Airport. But after less than a year, Scenic also asked to be let out.

Scenic also served Merced with flights to North Las Vegas from 2001 to 2005, when Air Midwest stepped into both Visalia and Merced.

Cifuentez said that despite Air Midwest's decision to leave Visalia, rising flyership make him optimistic for the future of air service in the city. Since 2004, the number of people flying to and from Visalia has more than quadrupled, from 2,131 in 2004 to 8,672 in 2006.

That trend has continued into 2007, Cifuentez said, reporting that Air Midwest carried at least 1,300 passengers in each of the past three months, putting the airline on a pace for 16,000 for the year.

"Our job is to work with potential carriers to show what the market is here," Cifuentez said. "Our numbers show that people have responded and that people are willing to use the service if it meets their needs."

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

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