One measure of a city's economic prowess, and thus its place in the American landscape, is its access by air to and from the world beyond its borders. By that measure, Bakersfield ranks somewhere between Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and Bismarck, N.D. That is to say, just a few notches above irrelevance.
By other important measures, Bakersfield is very much somewhere. It's an agricultural behemoth and the West Coast's most important oil town. It's got a tourism-worthy musical heritage, a culinary culture of some renown and, for what it's worth, a congressman with the president's ear.
Its primary airport, Meadows Field, has no commercial competition of note for 100 miles.
Why the disconnect?
How do, for example, Albuquerque, N.M. (metro area: 920,000), and Omaha, Neb. (metro area: 890,000), so thoroughly outsell Bakersfield (metro area: 600,000) in terms of air travel? Albuquerque International Sunport had 4.9 million passenger boardings last year and Omaha's Eppley Airfield 4.6 million — each more than 20 times the traffic of Bakersfield's William Thomas Terminal, which fell for the second straight year to 203,000 in 2016.
What is it about Bakersfield?
"You're articulating the questions I wrestled with for 10 years," said Jack Gotcher, a driving force at Meadows Field for a decade — first as deputy director and then, for 5½ years, as director of Kern County's airports.
Some reasons are obvious. The oil industry flies its executives and engineers around the world like no other in these parts. Meadows Field's enplanements tell the industry's story over the past decade as well as any other measure: 345,000 passenger boardings in 2006, when oil was fat and sassy, followed a decade later by a 14-year low.
Clearly other factors are at work. Salt Lake City and New Orleans, to name two thriving airports in second-tier cities, are benefiting from more than just a single well-traveled industry. They had roughly 12 million enplanements each in 2017, in metro areas with only about 500,000 more residents than metro Bakersfield.
"Neither of them has an LAX close by," Gotcher correctly observed.
No, and neither do they compete with quite the number of smaller airports, either: Burbank, Ontario, Long Beach and Orange County siphon off Bakersfield flyers. Fresno does, too.
That's challenge number one.
More local flyers would be inclined to enjoy the convenience of Meadows Field if prices were more competitive. An economy-class, round-trip flight from Los Angeles to Chicago O'Hare, departing Aug. 1, started at $369 on Friday afternoon. The same ticket, departing from and returning to BFL, was $712. Even with savings on time, gas and parking fees, that's a hard sell for Meadows Field, which is stuck with the economic realities of its smaller scale.
That's challenge number two.
Business and government flyers, traveling on the corporate or taxpayer dime, often opt for charter service, bypassing the William Thomas Terminal altogether.
"Part of it is that we've built a culture around using private jets to fly to Sacramento, Denver, wherever," said Kern County Supervisor Mike Maggard, whose 3rd District has long included Meadows Field. "We need to break that culture."
That's challenge number three.
Solutions are tough to come by. Luring away the NBA's Los Angeles Clippers is mine, which is probably why I haven't been invited to participate in the county's ongoing series of interviews for a new director of airports. The county is in the process of replacing Richard Strickland, whose departure in February had all the markings of an involuntary separation. (Interim Airports Director Teresa Hitchcock didn't return my call Friday requesting comment.) A new hire could come as early as August.
Maggard has a much better solution than mine: Get Kern County business to connect. He, for one, has seen it work.
"Nashville had some of these same issues," he said. "No direct flights to L.A. and no direct flights to New York, which Nashville's main industry, music, really needed. They mounted a concerted effort (and) got all of (Nashville-area) industry on board (to lobby major carriers). It took the cooperation of local industry but they made it happen. It might take something like that."
Could local industry and local government, working together, establish a fund to subsidize aspects of local air travel? Ticket prices, carrier overhead — anything to get things moving in the right direction.
"If we got some oil companies to put up a bank, maybe agriculture, too, we might have something," Gotcher offered.
Government has already stepped in. Rep. Kevin McCarthy announced last week that the federal government has awarded Kern County half a million dollars to help support a resumption of passenger flights between Bakersfield and Dallas-Fort Worth.
If negotiations are successful, the money would be spent on advertising for American Airlines, which in October helped Kern secure the grant funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation's Small Community Air Service Development Program.
"We need a flight to Dallas," Maggard said, noting DFW's importance as a destination hub, "and we need a flight to Sacramento. We're optimistic about Dallas."
I wish we could be optimistic about Meadows Field in general.
I'll try. With a new director on the way eventually, and if enough local leaders in business and government are willing to try new approaches, perhaps one day we can, you know, overtake Bismarck.