Mark Witsoe is not in charge of the Meadows Field airport. You are.
He doesn't schedule flights or set ticket prices. You do.
Witsoe, three months into his job as director of the Kern County Airports Division, facilitates it all, of course, but he wants to make something clear: He's not here to turn Meadows Field into LAX Jr.
You're not going to, either.
But if more Bakersfield travelers considered BFL rather than driving into Los Angeles or Burbank, the local airport would likely evolve into a more desirable place for commercial-jet passengers, with more flights, more convenient departure times and maybe — maybe — downward-trending ticket prices. Or so says the new airports director.
It's not that simple, he knows. Many factors affect pricing, availability and convenience, a looming U.S. pilot shortage chief among them. But enthusiasm by the local customer base goes a long way.
"I will do what is possible but I'm not entirely in control of this," said Witsoe, who started his job Oct. 1. Travelers "are the ones to make the decisions that affect the airport."
The primary decision he's referring to, you might have guessed, is whether to fly out of Bakersfield, and pay a higher ticket price, or drive 90 minutes (or, depending on the 405's mood, much longer), take out a second mortgage to cover parking fees, and, upon your return, be reminded that you haven't really "returned" yet because the 405 beckons you once again.
"People regret their decision (to fly out of a Southern California airport) when they're driving home," he said, "because they're still not home when they get off the plane."
Since the affordability argument goes only so far, Witsoe — a 30-veteran of the industry who comes to Bakersfield after stops at large- and medium-sized airports in Seattle (two years), Portland (five years) and Reno (seven years) — makes it about fliers' self-esteem.
"People should value themselves enough to fly out of Bakersfield," Witsoe said. "What's your time worth? What's your convenience worth? I don't wish that drive on the Grapevine on anybody."
On Tuesday afternoon, a roundtrip, nonstop ticket with American Airlines from LAX to Chicago O'Hare departing around midday Feb. 1 was selling for $139. The same ticket, departing instead from Bakersfield with a short layover in Phoenix, was $237. I don't know about you, but I'll burn through $50 in gasoline just driving from Bakersfield to Los Angeles International.
"As more people fly out of Bakersfield, this city becomes a place where more airlines are willing to serve," Witsoe said. "If they can make more money at it, there will be more value for passengers, either in ticket prices or convenience."
Witsoe's job goes well beyond counting passenger enplanements. He's a mall manager of sorts, working with private Meadows Field tenants that range from charter services to a pilot school to car rental agencies. And he must manage the county's several satellite air fields as well.
Kern County Supervisor Mick Gleason, a pilot himself whose massive 1st District includes Meadows Field, gives Witsoe high marks.
"He's outstanding," Gleason said. "He has brought dramatic change. He gets things done -- the new runway ($50 million Runway 12L-30R, completed in three phases over four years and unveiled Thanksgiving eve) is a prime example.
"He has demonstrated his value already, resolving constituent issues with his diligence and demeanor. And he seems to have his staff pretty squared away."
But Witsoe can only do so much. Market forces, like great oceans, are guided by a mysterious hand that no single airport director can hope to influence.
Take, for example, that other supply-and-demand issue we mentioned.
"The real thing missing from this picture is the global pilot shortage," Ryan Crowl, president of Loyd’s Aviation, a Meadows Field-based charter jet service, wrote in a recent email.
He cites a 2016 Boeing report predicting that between 2015 and 2035, the number of aircraft needed to meet airline demand in North America will increase by nearly 3,000 aircraft — a 30 percent increase from today's numbers. At the same time the number of pilots is down 30 percent from 1987 and falling, and, at 48, the age of the average North American airline pilot is the oldest in the world.
"So why do Kern County residents care about a pilot shortage? The answer is that airlines now have to be extremely selective in which cities they operate. They do not have the resources — pilots — to staff routes that are marginally profitable," Crowl wrote.
That describes Meadows Field, which isn't a prime hub, isn't a secondary hub, isn't even a tertiary hub in the infrastructure hierarchy of U.S. airports.
"We're just a spoke in the great wheel," Witsoe concedes. "But we can succeed here."
And, Witsoe stresses, you can help.