More Passengers at Fresno Airport Mean Major Upgrades

Jul. 16--The stars are suddenly aligned for Fresno Yosemite International Airport, where everything from the Valley's population growth to higher gasoline prices is driving up passenger numbers.

And with the surge in passengers comes even better news: lower fares and planned airport improvements, including expanded baggage-claim and security-screening areas and a covered car-rental center.

The airport, which the city of Fresno owns, is seeing a boost in revenues, which it plans to invest in new facilities.

Like Fresno, regional airports across the country are experiencing growth as travelers opt for convenience over long drives to larger airports, said Laura Brown, a spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration.

More than a million people traveled through Fresno Yosemite International Airport in eight of the past 10 years. Since 2000, passenger traffic has grown 18% and is on pace to break records for the third straight year. Nine airlines, with 50 daily departures, fly out of Fresno.

While low-cost giants like Southwest Airlines still are unlikely to come, since last year two new airlines have arrived at the Fresno airport, providing passengers with more destinations and cheaper fares. That, in turn, has attracted more passengers, prompting some airlines to add flights. More options lure more passengers.

Location and economics have driven the passenger surge at Fresno Yosemite International, drawing central San Joaquin Valley residents who in the past drove outside the region to catch flights.

Unlike the Bay Area and Southern California where several airports compete for passengers, the Fresno airport enjoys a monopoly in a growing region. The airport's nearest competitor, San Jose International Airport, is about 155 miles away. Sacramento's airport is about 180 miles away.

"There really isn't any other place to go" that's reasonably close, said Joe Penbera, a business professor at California State University, Fresno.

"And then there's the sheer growth of the region -- more households, more retailers. And those retailers have to fly their employees in and out of town," said Penbera, who will become board chairman of Gottschalks department stores in January.

There are more than 1.84million people living in Merced, Mariposa, Madera, Fresno, Kings and Tulare counties, up 11.7% from 2000 to 2005, according to the state's Department of Finance, which tracks population numbers.

"It's the population growth. It's the economy" that is driving passenger growth, said Michael Boyd, an aviation analyst and consultant to airlines and airports across the country, including Fresno.

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But there is another factor as well, experts say: Many in the Valley appear less willing to pay for the gas and spend the time needed to drive to Bay Area or Southern California airports -- even in exchange for cheaper flights.

The average cost of a gallon of gas in Fresno is $3.22, up from $2.57 a year ago, according to AAA's daily fuel gauge report.

AAA said it now costs an average of 52 cents a mile to drive a car, including the cost of gasoline, tires, insurance and maintenance. At that rate, driving back and forth to San Jose's airport would cost $161. Sacramento would cost $190.

"The surge in gasoline prices was the biggest catalyst to [airline passenger] growth in Fresno," said Russ Widmar, the city's aviation director.

Shirley Regert and her 13-year-old daughter, Katie, recently flew out of the Fresno airport to a family reunion in Colorado because it was the cheapest option.

Regert, who lives in Merced, paid $689 for each round-trip ticket. Citing high gas prices, Regert said the tickets were less expensive than driving to San Francisco or Oakland and flying from the Bay Area.

Deanna Mercado, 51, said high gas prices also led her to fly through the Fresno airport.

Mercado and her 16-year-old daughter are from Alaska and recently visited family in Madera. Mercado considered flying into the Bay Area, but "it was actually cheaper just to fly right into Fresno."

Widmar said the airport's passenger growth was helped by the recent addition of two airlines: Mexicana Airlines, which has nearly filled its planes since opening in April, and Frontier Airlines, which Widmar said has helped keep ticket prices down throughout the airport.

At the Fresno airport, Mexicana operates one round-trip flight to Guadalajara five days a week. In May the airline led Fresno carriers with almost 86% of its seats filled.

Mexicana and airport officials are talking about adding flights.

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Frontier is credited with making Fresno a more economical and popular airport. The low-cost carrier flies to Portland, Seattle/Tacoma and Denver, where travelers can connect to flights to the East Coast. Denver is a hub airport for United Airlines.

Frontier's first flight from Fresno took off last August. Before the first plane left the runway, the airline already had caused other carriers to drop their prices.

Some carriers also are adding flights or bringing in larger planes.

US Airways recently upgraded to a 124-seat plane, up from the 90-passenger regional jet used before. United Express and Allegiant Air each added a flight to Las Vegas in the past year.

Experts, however, say Fresno isn't likely to land Southwest Airlines.

To offset rising fuel and labor costs, Southwest and similar airlines need to fly more people than the central San Joaquin Valley can provide.

"They need at least a half million passengers, just by themselves, and that's still far more than Fresno can generate," Boyd said.

Fresno's terminal is packed most mornings and airport officials are trying to make the wait time shorter at baggage-claim and the security-screening area, one the airport's worst bottlenecks.

There are plans to double the size of the baggage-claim area and double or triple the size of the security-screening area. Work on the combined $3.5million project is scheduled to start in November and take about a year to finish.

A $3.5million remodel of the terminal lobby is next on the airport's ambitious project list. It is expected to start once the baggage-claim and security-screening improvements are finished. Matching federal aviation grants will help pay for the improvements.

Construction of a $27 million car-rental facility is set to start in 2008.

The airport's six car-rental agencies would be consolidated onto one site next to the airport terminal. The facility will shield patrons and cars from the weather.

The airport receives 10% of car-rental revenues, which translates to about $3million a year in user fees. Those user fees will pay for the new car-rental facility in about 10 years.

Car rentals, concessions and parking provide 45% of the airport's $12.5million annual income. Most of the rest comes from gate fees paid by airlines.

Airport officials planned the changes after surveying travelers about the improvements they want.

Steve Hickerson, a Visalia businessman who flies weekly to many destinations out of Fresno, said expansion of the security-screening area and baggage claim will greatly improve the airport.

Said Hickerson: "They should help with the two most important things at an airport: moving people in, moving people out."

The reporter can be reached at mleedy@fresnobee.comor (559) 441-6208.

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