Delta Air Lines will begin flying full-sized jets from Fresno to Atlanta this summer, opening up new options for central San Joaquin Valley residents traveling east.
The seasonal test by one of the nation's biggest carriers is occurring for three reasons: The Valley is growing, business is booming at Fresno Yosemite International Airport, and Delta's regional jet service to Salt Lake City is wildly popular, said Michael Boyd, an aviation analyst and president of the Colorado-based Boyd Group.
The new service, which could be expanded if successful, is the latest in a string of advances at the airport, which last year reached record ridership levels for the fourth consecutive year. The airport draws from a growing population between Merced and Bakersfield.
"Delta sees an underserved market, they see American Airlines doing well to Dallas, and they are doing well to Salt Lake City. This augments what they are doing," Boyd said.
The service, which begins in June, will last for four months, during the busy summer season. Whether the carrier extends it beyond that period depends upon how well it works, Boyd said.
Bulldog Travel owner Keith Johnson said the route will benefit travelers to the East Coast because Atlanta, as Delta's hub, will have a plentiful supply of connecting flights.
"I can see it helping the East Coast a lot," he said.
Business travelers say the addition of a 150-passenger jet to Atlanta will boost the number of airline seats during the busy summer season. "The problem I see in Fresno in the summer is that the flights are so crowded that just to have additional capacity going east will make it easier for a business person needing a seat right away," said Ed Beckman, a businessman who travels thousands of miles per year.
The service begins June 9 and will depart Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Beckman said fares initially are ranging from $418 to $573 round trip, depending upon date of purchase and travel time. Round-trip retail fares from San Francisco to Atlanta range from $409 to $630, according to Hotwire.com.
"That is definitively competitive," he said.
Beckman, who is involved in the tomato industry, is loyal to United Airlines and its frequent flier program but admitted that a carrier that provides larger jets, good service and good fares could persuade him to switch his allegiance.
"I'm very closely watching who is putting larger jets into Fresno because I work on airplanes. My loyalty will end up with a full-size jet," he said.
Delta stopped serving Fresno with its larger jets to Salt Lake City and Reno, Nev., in 1998 when it contracted with SkyWest Airlines to fly its Delta Connection service three times daily to Salt Lake City.
Those 50-passenger jets are packed during the summer, averaging almost 91% full last June.
Those ridership levels caught Delta's attention, so it decided to test a bigger jet to Atlanta. From there, passengers will be able to board Delta flights to other cities in the East and Southeast.
"If your incumbent carrier is doing well, they're always going to ask, 'Can we do better?' " Boyd said.
Delta has staged similar seasonal tests in other cities, such as Spokane, Wash., and Boise, Idaho. In some cities, Delta offers the expanded operations only during the summer.
"Fresno has to realize that Delta is saying, 'We left town and are coming back. Show us what you can do. Give us a sign that this can be a successful business,' " Beckman said.
Delta officials couldn't be reached to comment, but a spokeswoman for the city of Fresno confirmed that Delta would test the service this summer. As Delta's hub, Atlanta is a busy connecting point to other destinations.
"Delta is not looking to carry people to Atlanta. They are looking to carry people to New Orleans, Miami, Gainesville and Washington," Boyd said.
Boyd predicted a successful test for Delta because it will simplify travel to the East and Southeast, which travelers from Fresno often can't reach without changing airplanes twice.
The Delta test is the most recent sign that carriers are looking for opportunities in Fresno.
Frontier Airlines, enticed by a $1 million grant from the city, was first in August 2005, with low-fare connections to Denver. Then came Mexicana Airlines in April 2006, trying to tap into a large population traveling to Mexico, followed by ExpressJet's announcement this month that it will fly regional jets to Ontario and San Diego in Southern California.
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