News Item: SkyWest, a subsidiary of United Airlines, announces that it will cease serving the Modesto airport in July, 2014, citing declining numbers of passengers. With a population of over half a million citizens, Stanislaus County has a sufficient population base to support the service of at least one airline. So what is the problem?
A History of Mediocre Service and Schedules
If one wants a case study on how not to run an airline, the service provided to Modesto’s flying public provides a classic example.
The first problem is inadequate frequency of flights. Valley citizens catch flights to all over the world at all times of day from San Francisco, San Jose, Sacramento, and Oakland International airports. As a conduit for passengers exclusively to San Francisco International Airport, SkyWest’s schedule appeals to only a small segment of potential passengers residing in Stanislaus County. Service to Los Angeles is being proposed that will face challenges comparable to current service. If passengers can’t conveniently get to a major airport via Modesto air services, they will drive or take other public transportation. The inadequate frequency of flights problem is encountered again when returning to Modesto.
The second problem is unreliability. Valley citizens often missed connecting flights when Sky West cancelled service due to early morning fog or too few passengers. The carrier made decisions to cancel flights without regard to the convenience of passengers. In turn, affected passengers abandoned the carrier as a transportation provider because the carrier was unreliable. Given the proximity of Modesto to San Francisco, the cost for parking, gasoline, and traffic grief was often perceived as preferable to the unreliability of the carrier.
The third problem is the ticket price. The one way cost to San Francisco is over $100 if one does not fly with a United Airlines connecting flight. For two travelers, driving to the San Francisco airport and paying for parking is cost effective compared to the price of two fares. For families, the price comparison is worse. Undoubtedly. the price structure has discouraged a substantial percentage of potential Modesto airport customers from using SkyWest. Limousine Service from San Francisco to Modesto is about the same price as the fare for one person. Using Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) and buses to BART is the least expensive choice. Coincidentally, the difficulty in lining up bus/BART schedules vs Skywest schedules for connecting flights are comparable!
The fourth problem is the plane. When this writer rode the plane, there was not a working toilet on it. By the time one arrived in San Francisco or Modesto, one would be very uncomfortable. As a small plane was used to provide service and the ride was less comfortable than a larger plane. The ride over San Francisco Bay was very bumpy on occasion, constituting a very stressful flight for those who are afraid to fly.
Finally, the airline does little, if anything, to promote the service. The airline has done little advertising, has not run promotions, or done anything obvious to tout its service. No known customer satisfaction surveys have been taken and the company has had no presence in the community except when a plane has been at the airport. The ticket counter at the airport is usually closed.
Lack of Profitability in the San Joaquin Valley
For many years, the U.S. government has subsidized air service to smaller communities like Modesto. In turn, air carriers have used the subsidies to maintain service without a commensurate effort to make the routes profitable. Routes are only profitable when planes fly full and are constantly in use. Historically, air carriers have only done the minimum when operating without competition in small markets. Passengers either pay the monopolist price and accept mediocre service or use alternative transportation.
Back in the 1950’s, the population base of Modesto and Stanislaus County was too small to sustain airline service. Subsidies could be justified. Now, given today’s much larger population, an air carrier that wants to build a business by connecting Valley towns to major airports could build a healthy business. But there are now so few air carriers that little competition remains within the industry.
The business model of the merged air carrier industry does not include serving the San Joaquin Valley, no matter how large our population grows. The prospect of service to Los Angeles airport, a major hub for air travel, is encouraging. But the service will not survive if the carrier does no better a job than Sky West has. The airline will have to operate in a businesslike manner, not just fly planes at will and hope people show up at the gate.