Merced, CA Approves New Air Service for Regional Airport
Authorities may soon meet residents’ appetites for increased flights from Merced to Las Vegas – but not without compromise and changes in travel routes.
This week, Merced City Council unanimously approved Advanced Air as the first choice over Boutique Air for an Essential Air Service (EAS) contract with the Merced Yosemite Regional Airport. Boutique Air had the contract since 2015.
“We’ve had an eye on Merced for a long time,” Barbara Hunt, vice president of business operations for Advanced Air, told City Council. “It’s right in our area of operation, that’s where we want to be.”
But some locals are not happy with the decision, including some key stakeholders in the business community.
Several people, including members of the Hispanic Merced County Chamber of Commerce and the Merced Hotel Motel Association, recently spoke publicly to urge city leaders to reconsider their decision.
EAS is a contract designation means to address concerns about uninterrupted service from air carriers to rural areas of the United States. The program provides an operating subsidy to air carriers through contract with the US Department of Transportation and the selected carrier.
The current contract serving Merced expires July 31. City council chose two different Advanced Air proposals as its top picks, with Boutique Air’s plan ranking third.
The air service that gets the new contract will finally be decided in August by the federal Department of Transport, but the federal government will heed the city’s recommendation.
What’s more, the federal government’s decision has aligned with city council’s suggestion in recent cycles, Merced’s director of economic development, Frank Quintero, told The Sun-Star.
In addition to Advanced Air and Boutique Air, Southern Airways and Denver Air Connection have also submitted proposals for Merced Airport. Quintero said that during his tenure he had never seen up to four interested airlines.
“I believe that tells us that there is an opportunity at our airport,” he said.
Merced’s airline change sparks local debate
The proposed change in carriers is largely driven by Advanced Air’s commitment to connect Merced with service to Las Vegas International Airport.
Merced residents have expressed great interest in the plane to Las Vegas, especially given the Oakland Raiders move, according to city officials.
Four different Boutique Air proposals for the new contract period included combinations of flights to Sacramento, Reno, Monterey and Los Angeles, but not to Las Vegas. The average plane ticket is $ 69.
The Advanced Air package chosen offers trips from Merced to Las Vegas and Los Angeles with an average air fare of $ 145.
But rather than landing on a tarmac at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), the planes would now land at Hawthorne Municipal Airport if the DOT backed Merced’s first choice of contract.
Hawthorne Airport, located about 3 miles from LAX, is the home base for Advanced Air – but not a commercial airport. The airline carries passengers to and from Hawthorne and LAX for connecting flights.
But some have expressed concern that the downside of removing LAX direct flights was a mistake. “I fly frequently and if I made a connecting flight I felt like I would have anxiety if I potentially missed a flight,” said Sarah Boyle, a member of city council, noting her preference for LAX.
Other officials have raised concerns about the higher average fare associated with Advanced Air. Merced County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce President Annissa Fragoso says Boutique Air prices are better represents the average consumer’s budget. “The chamber believes that boutique air is the best option for the community,” she said.
But others say Advanced Air would bring new opportunities to Merced.
In addition to flights from Las Vegas, city staff highlighted the airline’s knowledge of Merced’s needs and its pledge of $ 70,000 per year to market the airport.
This financial pledge solves a key problem in Merced: the fact that many residents don’t even know the city has an airport, said Travis Colby, member of the Merced Regional Airport Authority. This problem, he said, can only be solved with a significant investment in marketing.
Airline officials also said they plan to align flights to Merced with the Yosemite area regional transportation system bus schedules to promote tourism in the “Gateway to Yosemite.”
“I think you are what Merced needs right now,” Board member Delray Shelton said of Advanced Air.
The airline appeals to the city council
Although the May 24 deadline has passed to give comments on carrier preferences to the Transportation Ministry, representatives from Boutique Air have asked city council to change its mind at the last two meetings.
The decision to approve Advanced Air disrupts business plans between Boutique Air and Gateway Air Center, which offers services such as flying lessons and aircraft maintenance at Merced Airport. Officials from each company spoke at this week’s city council meeting to argue their case against the decision.
“I would like to respectfully ask this organization to consider nominating Boutique Air as the first choice of airline for this city”, Tom Lopes, president of Gateway Air Center, asked at this week’s board meeting.
Boutique Air founder and CEO Shawn Simpson told city leaders he and Lopes are working on a plan to make Merced Boutique Air the home base and expand aircraft maintenance operations and pilot training.
The plan would have created at least 20 new, well-paying jobs in southern Merced and cleaned up dilapidated airport buildings, he said. Simpson said he was not included in Boutique Air’s proposal because it is a private business deal, but given the circumstances, he felt it was justified to disclose it to the board.
“We didn’t anticipate that we wouldn’t be reselected,” Simpson told city council. “We want to make (Merced) a home for us,” he said at another board meeting.
Merced City Council members Fernando Echevarria and Jesse Ornelas, who represent southern Merced regions, expressed interest in the concept because of the benefits it would bring to their neighborhoods.
But other city officials were reluctant to commit to verbal promises rather than written proposals.
Echevarria, Ornelas and Boyle – who each expressed hesitation about Advanced Air – ultimately voted alongside their fellow board members to back the airline as the top choice.
As a compromise, the final vote replaced the recommendation of Southern Airways municipal staff with Boutique Air as the third choice.