Merced's passenger plane service won't be up in the air much longer.
The City Council votes today on a replacement for Scenic Airlines, which announced in May that it's leaving Merced.
Three airlines -- Mesa, Great Lakes and Big Sky -- are in the running to take over the government subsidy that funds Merced's passenger air service.
The council will pick one carrier, then send a letter endorsing its choice to the U.S. Department of Transportation. The DOT has final say on which carrier will win the two-year subsidy, which can run up to $1.9 million annually.
In June, Castle Airport Aviation and Development Center wrote a letter to the DOT asking that Castle be considered as a potential take-off point for whichever airline wins the federal subsidy.
None of the airlines that submitted bids mentioned Castle as a possibility in their proposals -- all three planned their routes using Merced Municipal Airport.
The Airport Authority recommended that the council support Phoenix-based Mesa Air Group's bid. Mesa competed against Scenic the last time the subsidy was up for grabs, but the city backed Scenic.
Councilman Bill Spriggs said he agrees with the Airport Authority's decision to support Mesa.
"Because Mesa offers the best service, the greatest number of flights, and has the strongest financial position, I think they're clearly the best choice," said Spriggs.
Mesa, Great Lakes and Big Sky's proposals are very similar. All three use the same type of aircraft -- a 19-seat propeller plane -- and all three want to fly Mercedians to Las Vegas' main airport, McCarran International.
Big Sky's fares would start at $79 each way, Great Lakes would charge $117 each way, and Mesa's prices would range from $99 to $148.
But those fares aren't guaranteed, said the Airport Authority's Rick Eason, and could go up or down just like any air fare.
Mesa's partnership with US Airways made it an attractive candidate, said Eason.
"They offer seamless e-ticketing anywhere in the world you want to go from Merced," said Eason.
Eason said Merced residents sometimes tell him they don't feel comfortable flying in 19-seat propeller planes and they miss the big jets that flew in and out of Merced in the 1980s.
But Eason said the days of big jets in Merced are gone -- most airlines now use propeller planes to route passengers from small towns to bigger hubs.
If Merced can't have jets, Mesa offers the next best thing: planes painted with the US Airways logo, said Eason.
Mesa is also most likely to help Merced Municipal Airport reach its goal of boarding 10,000 passengers in one year, a number that triggers more funding from the Federal Aviation Administration, said Eason.
"I feel really really good with Mesa, and I think Mesa could be a very very long term solution to air travel out of Merced," said Eason.
Representatives from Mesa Air Group could not be reached for comment.
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