California's Modesto Airport Pushing L.A. Route

Stanislaus County, California's largest airport is aggressively marketing the service to put bodies in seats.

Having inaugurated four daily flights from Modesto to Los Angeles International Airport via United Express last month, Stanislaus County's largest airport is aggressively marketing the service to put bodies in seats.

Part of that effort is directed at the business community in Stockton. This week, members of the Greater Stockton Chamber of Commerce may have received oversized postcards promoting the service.

Modesto Airport officials believe San Joaquin County as well as Stanislaus, Merced and surrounding foothills counties are part of its marketing area that includes 1.2 million people.

"We're targeting the business traveler who needs to go to LAX on a regular basis and promoting 'A,' the cost is reasonable, 'B' you skip the long drive and 'C' the parking is free," said Michael Musca, Modesto's airport director.

Musca described the initial response to the daily flights carrying an initial $79 one-way fare as very successful, with the early-morning outbound and late-evening inbound flights completely full. On average, the 30-seat Embraer 120 turboprops are departing Modesto with a 70 percent to 80 percent load factor.

"What we're relying on is the business traveler to sustain those seats through the winter and foggy season," Musca said.

Besides postcards directly mailed to chamber members in Stockton, Modesto, Oakdale and Turlock, the airport is paying for advertising space in The Record's business section and other general-circulation newspapers, the Latino press and time on regional radio stations.

What makes it possible is a $550,000 federal grant from the Department of Transportation, $105,000 of which is specifically earmarked for a marketing campaign. The remaining $445,000 is to provide a revenue guarantee for the airline. The planes feature the United Express logo but are actually operated by SkyWest Airlines of St. George, Utah, which flies into 38 states and Canada and has been serving the Modesto Airport since 1998 with flights to San Francisco International Airport.

The airport hired Beverly Mayhew of The Ulum Group in Eugene, Ore., to coordinate its marketing effort.

"We go in once an airline is committed. Then we have to let people know about it. The Modesto media market is expensive, and we have a limited amount to spend. One hundred thousand dollars doesn't go very far, so the focus of the marketing effort is on the business traveler," Mayhew said.

Musca and his counterpart at Stockton Metropolitan Airport, Barry Rondinella, described their relationship inseparate telephone interviews as that of friendly competitors.

"We're both trying to carve out a niche," Musca said. "Our niche is get the business traveler and the leisure traveler down to LAX. We've already got the SFO shuttle providing a quick hop to San Francisco. What that does is get Modesto and Valley residents into the big United Airlines system."

At Stockton Metro, which inaugurated passenger service June 16 to Las Vegas via Allegiant Air after almost three years of no scheduled airlines, the niche is focused more on the leisure traveler right now.

"From my perspective, the more people that fly out of this area, the better for the community. That's what it's all about," said Rondinella in offering encouragement to Modesto's efforts.

While Rondinella said Stockton Metro has applied each year for the same grant money awarded to Modesto Airport, it has come up short since the program's inception a few years ago.

"The grapevine says we've gotten really close each time. They will be making grant awards in four to six weeks, and then we could market our own L.A. service," he said.

"The group we have honed in on is Horizon (a subsidiary of Seattle-based Alaska Airlines). It would not just be L.A. service but also to the Northwest, Portland and Seattle. They are scheduled to get new planes in early 2007, and they would like to expand -- they just don't have enough planes now," Rondinella said.

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