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A United Express passenger jet refuels at Meadows Field Airport.

American Airlines has announced that it plans to add a second nonstop flight between Bakersfield and Dallas in January. It is a good sign for Kern County airport officials who have been working to expand local airline service. But it continues to be a struggle to attract airlines and passengers to the Meadows Field Airport, which includes a recently refurbished runway and a modern, convenient terminal.

“I am excited about the future of commercial passenger service at Meadows Field and believe that airlines will soon recognize the growing and improving demographics of the region,” said Mark Witsoe, who is marking his first anniversary as Kern County’s airports director. “I hope for continued loyalty of our residents to show that flights are worth the cost. We will not retain what we have now, or grow the choices, unless airlines see that the airport is getting used now.”

American Airlines currently serves Meadows Field with three daily Bakersfield-Phoenix departures and one daily Bakersfield-Dallas/Fort Worth departure. United Airlines serves the county airport with two daily Bakersfield-Denver departures and one daily Bakersfield-San Francisco departure. Industry analysts predict that in the present global economy, American Airlines will be better positioned than its competitors to cope with volatility, including shrinking markets and trade wars. As an example, they note American Airlines’ operation in Asia — and particularly China — is smaller than United Airlines and Delta Airlines, its major competitors.

This spring, American Airlines added several new routes at its Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport hub, where its number of departures are expected to spike. The airport recently opened 15 new regional jet gates to accommodate the increased traffic. Plans are underway to design a new Dallas-Fort Worth terminal that will add 24 new gates by 2025. Terminals also are being expanded at Charlotte and Washington, D.C., two other American Airlines hubs.

American Airlines began its first Bakersfield-Dallas/Fort Worth flight in March, after receiving a $500,000 Small Community Air Service Development grant from the federal Department of Transportation. With the grant and support of Kern County supervisors and local businesses, the Airports Department “entered into an air service revenue guarantee agreement to offset any losses recognized by American Airlines over the course of one year in flying between Bakersfield and Dallas/Fort Worth,” Witsoe explained. Because the community’s response was so strong and flight revenues exceeded expectations, America Airlines decided to add a second daily flight in January.

“The new flight is a testimony to the growing strength of the local economy and the increasing value that residents recognize in traveling from Meadows Field Airport,” Witsoe said in response to American Airlines’ expansion announcement. Witsoe explained that American Airlines’ decision to provide service to Bakersfield is based on a combination of several factors: solid data showing the route would be profitable, aircraft and crew availability, added value to the airlines’ Dallas/Fort Worth hub and startup incentives, including the Community Air Service Development Grant.

“Airlines are continuously looking how to grow their network of airline service and route profitability. They can do this in many ways,” he said. “Reschedule a flight so that it connects better to other flights at a hub airport. Fly a larger aircraft with more seats. Fly an aircraft with multiple classes of services (first class, business, economy plus, coach.) Increase the frequency of air service between two cities. Introduce a new route between two cities.”

Key to an airlines’ decision is passenger support. And that can be a vicious circle. Airlines will expand service if there is sufficient passenger demand. Passengers will support an airport if sufficient, competitively priced flights are available.

“The more we use our own airport, the sooner the planes will fill up,” said Ray Watson Jr. at Uniglobe Golden Empire Travel in Bakersfield. Larry Schallock at Lambourne Travel in Bakersfield noted that commercial travelers are more willing to pay higher air fares in exchange for the convenience of using Meadows Field. Leisure passengers are more price sensitive.Witsoe suggests passengers should consider more than just the ticket price when deciding to fly out of Meadows Field. They should ask: How much additional time am I going to have to commit to the additional distances driven to make my trip from another airport? How much is it going to cost to drive, including the wear and tear on my vehicle? How much is it going to cost for parking? What is it worth to avoid the long lines and the possibility of a lengthy trip delay?

“From our business perspective, we try to push the local airport,” said Watson. “It’s easier with business travelers, because they often factor in the value of their time. Shorter check-in times, no long commute to LAX and a more pleasant travel experience makes it an easy sell. We lose some travelers to LAX on the leisure side of the business. If the fares are $50 per person cheaper (or more) for a family of four, sometimes it makes sense to make the drive down to LA. If we’re talking about a vacation time with kids, customers typically don’t factor time into that cost equation.”

“Primarily, the airlines need to be confident that their service to the community will be well-received and earn the expected revenue on a daily, weekly and monthly basis,” said Witsoe. “There is significant competition for pilots, crew and aircraft. Flights will be initiated and sustained on routes that the airline can earn the most profit.”

(1) comment

FSUdogBill

Since moving back home to Bakersfield from LA in 1992, I've logged over 2 million air-miles and 700+ business trips. I prefer to fly Meadows Field, but this choice has become increasingly difficult for my frequent business travel. First, only seven daily flights and no evening departures greatly limit my options. For example, if I desire an over-night flight to a city in the east, I have to leave my home at 3pm for a 4pm American flight to Phoenix, then sit for 5 hours waiting for a connecting flight. LAX provides many more options, and I can leave my Bakersfield home at 8pm, wasting a lot less of my valuable time. When I returned to Bakersfield in the 1990's there were more than 20 daily flights, including several through LAX and SFO. Yes, the aircraft were smaller, but as a business traveler that frequency was invaluable. High cost: For years BFL fares were typically the same or within $150 of LAX options. However over the past few years I am frequently finding fares $400-$600 and higher, particularly when I have to book on short notice, as business travelers often must do. Combine poor schedules with higher costs, and I have gone from 90% of my travel originating at Meadows Field, to less than 50%. I have voiced my concerns with Meadows Field administration via their website contact form several times, and have never received a response. Disappointing.

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