Chico looks to Santa Rosa for solutions to air service stoppage
The timing of last week’s announcement by SkyWest Airlines to discontinue service to the Chico Municipal Airport in early December may have come as a surprise, but the bigger decision was no shock, according to city and airport officials who say they’ve been—albeit inadvertently—packing the proverbial parachute for such a bailout for several months.
“The Chico Airport Commission was already working on a plan for expanded passenger service,” Mayor Scott Gruendl said in a press release and “five-point action plan” posted to his Facebook page Monday (Aug. 18). “Although the announcement by SkyWest is terrible news, it was anticipated and the pathway to the future is already being laid.”
“We knew that Chico was probably on a short list when other Valley towns started losing their connections through SkyWest,” Gruendl elaborated in a phone interview, referring to the airline’s April decision to halt service to Modesto. “We made it through the previous round, but it was a good indicator we might be next.”
SkyWest, which contracts with United Airlines to provide United Express service between Chico and San Francisco, cited maintenance and fuel costs, government regulations and the lack of tickets sold in Chico as reasons for stopping service. The airline also is axing services to Humboldt County and Yuma, Ariz., on Dec. 2, according to news reports in the Times-Standard and Yuma Sun.
On March 13, city officials, local business people and members of the Airport Commission met with Paul Kelley, a former Sonoma County supervisor-turned-consultant who helped restore commercial air service to the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport in Santa Rosa, which ceased following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The airport reopened in 2007, and use has increased steadily since, serving more than 227,000 travelers in 2013.
Kelley’s presentation detailed the steps taken in his county and offered an action plan for Chico that formed the basis for Gruendl’s strategy. Gruendl said he hopes the information gathered and progress already underway could result in a new carrier filling the gap left by SkyWest by next spring. He also said $200,000 of the city’s 2014-15 budget allotted to hire a new airport manager would be better used to expedite a new airport market study and contract with outside management services to help attract and secure a new carrier.
The city’s foresight can be at least partly credited to travel expert Greg Fischer, a Chico resident who regularly attends Airport Commission meetings and maintains a blog on local transportation issues called Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Fischer also helped organize Kelley’s Chico forum, and on April 17 sent a letter to the Airport Commission asking city staff to make a report detailing the financial consequences of airline service ending and the difficulties of recruiting a new carrier without existing service. The matter was discussed at the July 29 commission meeting, and Assistant City Manager Chris Constantin was assigned to present such a report at the commission’s next meeting, on Oct. 28.
“Perhaps having a glimpse of the airport’s financial picture in the event of United Airlines pull-out as well as an understanding of the challenges the city would face in restarting air service without an incumbent carrier would be enough to stir Chico’s business community out of its torpor,” Fischer wrote in that letter.
Shortly after Kelley’s appearance, and at Gruendl’s urging, the Chico Chamber of Commerce formed an Airport Task Force in May to help research new carriers to expand commercial air services in Chico and figure out how local businesses could be more involved with the airport.
“I see the business community playing a vital role in attracting new service,” said Katie Simmons, Chamber president and CEO. “In other cities that have lost their service, I’ve seen chambers really rally the support and resources necessary to a make a significant difference, and I see the same potential here in Chico.”
Through Kelley, Simmons arranged a July 28 field trip for Chamber members and city and county officials to visit the Santa Rosa airport and talk to other players in that facility’s resurgence. Simmons said the task force also has reached out to officials at the Redding Airport.
Although Simmons didn’t mention specific strategies the task force intends to explore, Airport Commission member Karl Ory said one of Redding’s successes was establishing a travel bank, in which the travel budgets of local businesses are tallied and presented as incentives to lure airlines.
The Chamber’s Airport Task Force will meet with city and Chico State officials Thursday morning (Aug. 20) to present the information they’ve collected, and to discuss short-term goals. Ory said the Airport Commission and Chico City Council will hold a joint meeting as early as late September to finalize a strategy to move forward.