Armed with federal funds, Oroville's sister city of Chico officials will be setting down with SkyWest and Horizon airlines to see if a flight between Chico and Los Angeles can be worked out.
Assistant City Manager Dave Burkland is optimistic. He and City Manager Greg Jones have met with representatives from both airlines, getting an encouraging response about the north state's future air service.
The money a $472,500 federal grant adds seriousness to the conversations. Chico was one of 28 communities to receive the grant aimed at small and rural communities.
"A flight to L.A. is a priority," said Burkland, with service to the Portland area in second. Las Vegas was another popular destination.
So far, Chico's only air service is to San Francisco.
City officials weren't really surprised that travelers aren't flying out of the Chico Municipal Airport, but seeing a whopping 90 percent "leakage" to other airports is a big deal.
That information came from a city-ordered study of local businesses that travel, and travel agents.
"That was the most compelling figure," Burkland said of the study finished in December.
Most of that travel was to the Sacramento airport, as well as Oakland, San Francisco and Redding airports.
A close second in surprises was the fact that air fares are cheaper at the Sacramento airport than Chico or San Francisco.
But the study also showed that it cost an additional $112 per trip from Chico to Sacramento in gas, parking fees and lost time, which dents any benefit.
Burkland said he and Jones flew to SkyWest offices in Phoenix, and to Seattle for discussions with Horizon. They'll be on the road again, this time with information about the grant.
What the money does, Burkland said, is guarantee the airlines revenue to cover the risk associated with a new flight. Basically, it temporarily pays for empty seats, although Burkland said the city will negotiate over the details.
While Horizon, a subsidiary of Alaska Airlines, already serves Redding with a flight to Los Angeles, Burkland said it's not a matter of veering over to Chico on the way south.
"Horizon has made it clear that Redding has its own market. But it appears to them that they could make a go of it in Chico."
Burkland said SkyWest is also interested in expanding its flights in Chico.
For both airlines, it's a matter of equipment to provide the service, Burkland was told. Horizon is supposed to acquire 12 new aircraft next year, some of which are destined for the California market, including the growing Central Valley.
For SkyWest, it's a matter of reassigning an aircraft.
"But since they're already here, it might be easier."
Burkland said the next step is another meeting with the airlines. Chico has three years in which to use the subsidy.
What Chico doesn't want is to toss the money at an airlines and then find it leaves the market when the subsidy is gone, Burkland said.
The ideal is to assist the airlines for a short time as it establishes the new route. Hopefully, the passenger appeal of the new route would pick up and cover the costs within a short time.
Airlines "are taking a certain risk in coming to Chico." The subsidy helps soften the expense.
Burkland believes the area's air passengers can get beyond the drive-to-Sacramento syndrome.
"I think if the pricing is right, particularly for the business traveler, this can succeed.
"Both Horizon and SkyWest recognize the valley market is expanding. They're interested in expanding."
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