Wednesday, May 24, 2017
Visalia beats Trump’s proposed airport cuts
By Eric Woomer
The Visalia (CA) Times-Delta
Trump’s budget proposal cuts Essential Air Services, which Visalia has been a recipient of.
A new presidential budget proposal may mean the end of federal funding for small, rural airports. For some cities, it may force them to abandon their terminals, runways and hangars.
Visalia, though, is ahead of the game. While Visalia was among just four airports in the state to receive federal money through the Essential Air Services program, they opted out last year and took a $3.7 million payout, which was awarded this year. The Essential Air money had been used to bring in small airlines, but when SeaPort left in 2016, city officials saw it as an opportunity.
Mario Cifuentez, the city’s assistant city manager, took advantage of an FAA program that provides financial incentives to cities that opt out of the EAS program for at least 10 years. Now, President Donald Trump has proposed cutting the EAS program all together. For Merced, Inland Empire and Crescent City, it could mean millions of dollars lost each year.
Had Visalia been part of the program in 2017, they would have potentially lost $18 million over the next 10 years.
“We don’t have the same concerns as other small airports,” Cifuentez said. “A lot of smaller cities have already lost air service and they will probably never get it back.”
While Visalia doesn’t have an airline anymore, they will use the money to upgrade the airport, build 18 new hangars and generate revenue. Most of the money made by the airport is in fuel sales and hangar rentals. The upgrades may also bring in more charter companies –– currently there are two in Visalia.
The wait list for a hangar is 13 pilots deep right now.
Cifuentez said he proposed the buyout option because he sees the EAS system as broken.
“We didn’t lose passengers to Fresno, we lost passengers to Los Angeles and Burbank. You don’t have to drive far to get a major airline,” he said. “People want convenience and LAX offers the flights people want. They didn’t want to pay more to fly out of Fresno or Visalia at a time they don’t want.”
City officials agreed.
“We were the first city to ever utilize the program. We recognized that the EAS program was in jeopardy so we applied to opt out, accepted the funding to benefit the airport, for future growth, for business and private use,” Councilman Steve Nelsen said. “We are starting to see the beginning of building. And the funding has gone away from the program for other cities.”
The hangars should be up later this summer.
Dozens of pilots with nearly 200 planes call Visalia Airport home. Scott James, a local businessman and vice commander of the Tulare County Sheriff’s Aerosquadron is among those pilots.
James and his wife, Tara, fly in and out of Visalia nearly every weekend. Last weekend, they took the hour flight to Disneyland. The next day they flew to visit Tara’s family.
Visalia is centrally located, making it a prime spot for pilots to refuel or park on long trips south or north. For those who call Visalia Airport home, it’s a 30 minute flight to the coast and just an hour to northern and southern California destinations.
While the James family doesn’t have any complaints about the services in Visalia, they welcome the money being spent to upgrade the airport.
“I really hope this money stays here,” Scott James said. “The Visalia Airport is great and with some upgrades and more space, it will attract opportunities to make money and reinvest in the airport.”