A few years ago, I though Fresno Air Terminal (FAT) was prime for the addition of new flights, especially as the economy picked up. Jetblue was, and still is, rapidly growing. Virgin America was ready to compete with big plans. Southwest was continuing its slow-but-steady expansion into more and more cities, and disruptive airlines like Spirit were popping up. Surely new service to Houston, Chicago, and maybe Atlanta was coming to Fresno sooner rather than later.
Yet here we are in 2016, and the only innovative or low-cost airline to serve Fresno is Allegiant Air, an airline that surprisingly was founded and headquartered in Fresno before leaving for Vegas. At one point, they offered service from Fresno to Reno, Portland, Lake Tahoe, and Long Beach. They served Hawaii from Fresno in 2012, but mostly abandoned that market in 2014. Today, from Fresno, they only serve Las Vegas and Mesa, Arizona (new for this year).
The other low cost airline to serve Fresno, Frontier, left in January of 2015. They also stopped serving Bakersfield. They flew to Denver from both markets.
Indeed, Bakersfield and Visalia have also lost service. The long-standing Bakersfield-Houston flight, established by Continental, ended earlier this year (which prompted this post). Visalia now has no air service at all, after being an Essential Air Market with flights to LAX or Burbank. Last year, you could have flown from Visalia to San Diego via a quick stop in LAX for $69. Today, you’d have to own your own plane.
Of note, Merced still has air service. After losing Great Lakes (the same airline that served Visalia) they found a replacement in “Boutique Air” which serves LAX and Oakland, also for $69. However, the turnover for these tiny airlines is very quick. Visalia quit the commercial game because they went through 3 providers in 3 years and it was no longer worth the hassle. Merced might be next.
The legacy airline that have served the Valley continue to do so, but with less options. A big reason is because they’ve abandoned propeller aircraft, which are cheaper to operate. Instead, they now all use small jets. Sure, they’re larger, faster, and quieter, but the change has meant United no longer serves Las Vegas from Fresno and they only operate two flights a day to LAX.
Twice a day to LAX, is quite frankly, crazy.
Fresno does have two airlines serving Guadalajara, but the rumored service to Mexico City only emerged as a Christmas charter flight.
All these changes have made flying to and from Fresno harder than ever. Already an expensive airport, less options has meant higher prices, and more trouble when delays cause a connection to be missed. Everyone who flies into Fresno frequently has experience with either being forced to spend a night elsewhere or renting a car from LAX or SFO to actually arrive. While fog can be to blame in the winter (or when going to SFO), most of the time it’s because the plane scheduled for Fresno is diverted to serve another scheduled flight, leaving Fresno travelers high and dry.
Only Alaska has grown in Fresno, such as by offering service to San Diego. They’ve also recently purchased Virgin America, and taken big steps to increase their West Coast presence. If any airline is to add service to Fresno in the next few years, it would almost certainly be them.
This LA Times article from Sunday talks about Alaska’s expansion. What I found interesting is how they call Southwest “California’s airline” because apparently they carry more California passengers than anybody else. Not to Fresno though.
What is especially disappointing is that Southwest and Jetblue have continued to expand into smaller and smaller markets, but not Fresno.
Jetblue now serves Reno from New York City, and is planning service from Reno to Long Beach.
In fact, let’s take a look at our peer cities to see how Fresno compares. I chose cities similar in size to Fresno (by metropolitan area), and similar in importance. I ignored all of Florida because you can’t walk 5 feet without coming across an international airport served by 200 airlines (aka, the tourism factor). Basically, average cities that are a good distance from the nearest major metropolitan area. I also looked at Burlington, Vermont, as it gets Jetblue flights, although it is many times smaller.
Ranked by the population of the metropolitan area, (ie, the flying public), Fresno ranks 3rd from this selection of cities.
However, ranked by airline service, Fresno comes out looking pretty bad:
Dead last in destinations served. Only Knoxville also lacks service by Southwest and Jetblue, but they get twice the number of destinations from less airlines. In regards to airlines, I combined entities such as “American Eagle” with “American Airlines” and I went by brand, rather than actual airline (Skywest does most flights, but nobody buys a Skywest ticket). I included Burlington as an example of a very small metro area with Jetblue service….and awkwardly, more destination options than Fresno, even with a metro area more than twice as small.
Unsurprisingly, the lack of service has resulted in a much smaller number of passengers than these other cities. And that’s where you get a chicken and egg problem.
Airlines don’t serve Fresno because few people fly. Few people fly because prices are expensive, destinations are limited, and service is unreliable.
Sure, people can and do drive to LAX and SFO. But that’s a waste of a day. The 4 hour drive usually means 5 because you have to plan for traffic or delays. And since those airports are bigger, you have to arrive 2 hours early for TSA troubles. So half the day, just to make the flight.
One day, High Speed Rail will solve this problem. But for the next 6 years, Fresno finds itself stuck in the same situation. Limited flights, high prices, and a poor position compared to peer cities. I’m no longer expecting new destinations or airlines, but who knows, maybe Alaska might surprise.