Even with Southwest, Fresno air service still more limited than peers

Five years ago, I looked at how air service at FAT compared with cities similar to Fresno. I found that relative to the size of the metro area, Fresno had less passengers and less destinations served. Fresno also lacked service by both Jetblue and Southwest, but did get a larger share of airlines, thanks to the competition on flights to Mexico. Airlines would price fares high out of Fresno, and locals would save money by driving to LAX or SFO.

Well, today is a big day, as Southwest Airlines has finally started to serve Fresno.

There’s also been other changes since I wrote my post. Delta has started flying to LAX and Seattle. Both American and United have added service to Chicago. There are now 4 destinations in Mexico. Airlines have continued to add larger planes along existing routes.

As such, I’ve decided it’s time to compare Fresno to peer cities again. At the bottom of this post, I am including what my assumptions and data sources were in creating these tables.

Here is the table, sorted by 2019 metro population, which puts Fresno in 3rd. For enplanements, I used color to try and highlight the highest numbers.

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The first thing that jumped out at me, is that between 2010 and 2019, FAT passenger numbers went up 69% (nice), second only to Charleston, which I guess is becoming a tourism destination. In population, Fresno is growing quickly, but not as quickly as Boise or Reno, making it 5th in growth in that metric. Bakersfield population growth is just slightly less, but their air volume hasn’t grown (honestly I thought it had shrunk after they lost Houston).

But looking past that surge, let’s take the same chart and sort it by 2019 passenger volume. Suddenly, things aren’t as exciting. Compared to the same peers, Fresno is STILL close to last, at 13 of 17, even though Fresno is 3rd in population.

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Hmmm.

In destinations, Fresno has gained Chicago, Morelia, Leon, and Mexico City. Neither Honolulu nor Mesa have returned. 15 destinations is good, but that’s half as many as Omaha, and four of them are in Mexico. Knoxville really blows it out of the park with 31 destinations, but oddly, 17 are served by just Allegiant! Bakersfield is the saddest on the list, with just 4 destination. The reason being that LAX is driving distance. Charleston sure is something, with 38 destinations, including a ton in the midwest. No idea why. Reno shows the most growth in destinations, from 15 to 26, including Charlotte, JFK,

That being said, while Fresno feels like a big boy now, it still has less destinations available than everyone else but Bakersfield and Akron. And Akron apparently is the fastest shrinking airport in the country. Even tiny old Burlington, Vermont, with less than 250,000 people, matches Fresno in destinations. Ouch!

For airlines, Southwest is the big get for Fresno, but one of the last cities in the peer group to do so (Akron lost them). The chart sorted by passenger volume basically shows that they checked off their list. Frontier was gone when I did my last post, but has come back with the same uneven service to Denver. Southwest is going to kill them quickly, I would think, which might leave Fresno with just 8 airlines.

What surprised me is that this entire market segment is not served by Spirit, aside from Akron which has a very unique situation going on. They’re a big airline! They’re just avoiding this entire peer group. That’s a little fascinating. Meanwhile, Jetblue continues to be very picky with their cities. That, or throwing darts.

One area that would make Fresno look good is a column tracking international service. I didn’t keep track, but from what I remember, no one else came close. Charleston had London and Toronto in the past, but now they have no international service at all (I’m counting COVID suspended service, see the end of post for details).

One thing that blew my mind was Birmingham, AL, with the biggest population, only has 4 airlines. What on earth is going on there?

Are there other ways to sort this data? Absolutely. One could look at the number of seats, which has probably grown considerably as the planes serving Fresno keep getting bigger. Frequencies is another good one, as service 10x a day is more valuable than 3x a week. If anyone knows a quick way to get these numbers, please share. I’m not trying to hide anything, I’m just lazy.

That being said, I think most people care about non-stop destinations the most, and on that metric, Fresno still comes up short.

What’s Next?

It will be very interesting to see how FAT passenger volume ranks in 2021 compared to everyone else. Growth has a way of feeding growth, so it’s like the whole industry is paying attention to Fresno. So far, the response has been great, the question is, can it be sustained?

One possibility for 2021/2022 is that both Frontier and Allegiant Air (Fresno’s home-grown airline) both drop out, as they can’t compete with Southwest. That would be sad, but let’s be honest, no one will miss them. In turn, Southwest could ramp up their schedules further. Allegiant Air’s biggest market is Florida, which I don’t think is a draw from Fresno. They could try Mesa again I guess. After Denver, Frontier is big in Orlando, Vegas, and Philly. I can’t see that happening either.

Delta has gone from barely serving Fresno with some flights to SLC, to now serving 3 cities. I think their strategy will be driven by internal data, rather than what they see from Southwest. Let’s get Atlanta on a A220 folks.

Southwest service to Denver is in direct competition to United, and they might try for bigger planes. I hope they add Houston, which I would expect Southwest to try otherwise, so United better act fast.

I can’t see American doing anything aside from continue to fiddle with Phoenix and Dallas frequencies. Charlotte I think would be next on their map to make sense, but I can’t see it happening soon. Same with Alaska. Cabo would be a nice hail mary though. Maybe a flight to San Jose for all the people who supposedly fled the Bay Area this past year, but still work there?

I still don’t see Jetblue coming any time soon. I had thought Spirit, but as I said earlier, they really don’t like this market size. Odd. A brand new airline, Breeze, is set to announce their launch cities in a week or two. I would put Fresno at a 1% chance for now, but maybe one day.

Criteria

For those who are interested in data integrity, here was the data I used. Peer cities means metro areas with a similar population to Fresno AND at least a two hour drive from a major airport. Basically, a self-contained area (sorry Providence, RI). I also excluded airports that are huge tourist draws (no Florida, Hawaii, or ski resorts) and also cities along the Canadian border that pull Canadians looking for cheap fares. With this in mind, I kept the list from my 2016 post and expanded it slightly. Bakersfield and Rena don’t quality under my criteria, but I wanted to include them anyway since they’re close enough. For my own convenience, I pulled the metro population data from Wikipedia.

For passengers, I looked up data for 2019, since 2020 was obviously a total bust. As such, I compared population from the same year. Apparently, there’s like 3-4 different ways to measure passengers. For convenience, I found the spreadsheets on the FAA website easiest to grab data from.

For destinations served and airlines, I once again relied on airport pages on Wikipedia, which tends to be updated faster than local journalists can read a PR blast. As such, I couldn’t find a way to pull 2016 numbers from cities I didn’t look at last time, and the data is current as of today. For airlines, I am referring to a brand that people know. That is, American Airlines and American Eagle get counted as one. Skywest and Mesa don’t get counted at all. For destinations, I am including seasonal routes, routes announced but not yet started, and routes temporarily paused for COVID-19. I am also counting unique airports within the same city as separate destinations. I am including little airlines, like Boutique Air as well. Wouldn’t it be nice if they had a Fresno-Mammoth Lakes flight for ski season?

Oh, and a bonus picture, the new parking garage as of February.

2 Replies to “Even with Southwest, Fresno air service still more limited than peers”

  1. Great job compiling all this data, and good article. I have a few thoughts on it, but mostly just additions.

    To begin, the “why” for some of these cities you mentioned.

    First, there’s way more hubs in the eastern half of the US than the western half of the US. Smaller cities in the midwest and on the east coast generally have more destinations than ones out west because airlines can fly RJs on more routes from them. It’s why, for example, Cedar Rapids has flights to Atlanta and Charlotte…if CID was in Idaho or Utah, those routes would never be possible because they would not be in RJ range. Same holds true for your profiled cities…Burlington is a great example of that, there’s just a ton of hubs within RJ range of BVT. FAT really only has two hubs within RJ range that are not served already…MSP and IAH…and those are LONG flights (although UA still does ORD). It takes a lot for an airline to begin service with a mainline aircraft, vs beginning with an RJ and then upguaging when they see numbers are good (see: UA and ORD).

    (One more note…FAT is almost “too close” to most of the NorCal and SoCal airports to make service viable, which is why we only see the large hubs of LAX and SFO. RNO has more destinations than FAT, but 4 of them are smaller CA airports that FAT will likely never have flights to because they are so close…PSP, BUR, OAK, and SJC).

    Secondly, some of those cities are the main population centers for their regions. Boise, Omaha, and Albuquerque are all the largest airports for hundreds of miles (and in their whole respective states), and people will drive for hours to get to them (despite all three having at least one small airport within an hour or two drive). Fresno does not and never will have that advantage…although the economics are shifting and FAT is now drawing from a larger area (I saw a report the other day that had FAT as the third largest “leakage” airport from the Bakersfield region after LAX and BUR, and growing). I think FAT can grow its catchment area to include everything from Bakersfield to Modesto (sorry BFL), which will help a lot. (Side note…TUS is probably a bit like a Florida airport…lots of “sunbirds” vacation there.)

    I do think FAT is in a great position and will continue to grow. Many experts forecast it to be one of the top 5 fastest growing airports over the next few years. I think we will definitely see more flights and passengers, especially on current routes (which is good…more competition). Already, we’ve seen an increase in competition on LAX, DEN, SEA, and LAS recently. PHX and SAN are probably next to get another airline serving them.

    New routs are also probable, but it’s much more difficult forecasting which ones. Strong possibilities include HNL, SJD, MSP, IAH, SNA, and ATL. Less likely are MDW and HOU. Very outside chances include CLT, Orlando – SFB (on Allegiant), and JFK. We are probably a decade away from any of those though.

    Again, great job!

    1. Very very good points have been made by you Brian. In short, I agree with you that FAT is poised to be a fast growing airport to service a larger region from South Valley to North Valley.

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