Saturday, Apr 21 2012 08:00 PM

Meadows Field holding its own through tough times

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    A United Express flight comes into Meadows Field for its 8:30 a.m. arrival into Bakersfield with passengers from San Francisco. It's next headed to Los Angeles.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Passengers disembark from the United Express flight into Meadows Field Thursday morning. The plane came from San Francisco, stopped in Bakersfield and then went on to Los Angeles.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    A United Express flight lands at Meadows Field Thursday morning before taking off again after refueling, bound for Los Angeles. The plane and passengers flew in from San Francisco.

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BY JOHN COX Californian staff writer

Fear not, air travelers who fly out of Meadows Field instead of driving to Los Angeles International. Soaring jet fuel prices probably won't devastate local air service as happened four years ago.

On the other hand, don't get your hopes up too high that the list of nonstop destinations from Bakersfield will grow any time soon.

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Meadows Field is holding its own lately, thanks to a surge in local business travel as well as recent belt-tightening and consolidation across the industry. The airport is even managing -- in the face of historically high fuel prices -- to add a second daily flight to Denver come June 7.

That's not to say airlines are ready to resume service to Sacramento, San Diego, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas or Guadalajara, all of which have been cut off from Meadows Field over the last five years.

"None of these things happen quickly," Kern County Airports Director Jack Gotcher said.

It's all part of the seesaw balance between what passengers can pay for local convenience and what level of service airlines are willing to risk. When costs drive fares too high and seats go empty for too long, service goes away. Sometimes it returns; other times it doesn't.

"Air service follows need," said Dallas Myers, a longtime travel agent and tour escort at Bakersfield's Lambourne Travel. He sees air service out of Bakersfield as being at its lowest ever, partly because travel is down overall but also because LAX has the capacity and the direct connections Meadows Field will never match.

"It is a shame that we can't get more out of Bakersfield, " he said. "To be honest with you, I'm as tired of going to LAX as anybody."

Beginnings of a rebound?

There is reason for optimism nevertheless. Some daily service at the airport has fared relatively well through the economic downturn, and overall passenger volume is rising.

Flights from Bakersfield to the air travel hubs of Denver and Phoenix were running at 86 percent and 73 percent full, respectively, according to the most recent data available from September. That's up from 73 percent for Denver flights in January 2010, and 58 percent for Phoenix service.

Overall travel volume through Meadows Field peaked at 345,149 passengers in 2006, before falling to 208,677 in 2009. That's a 40 percent drop in three years -- a reflection of the Great Recession, when industry observers say people had less money to spend on air fares and they had less reason to travel anyway.

Since then, passenger volume at the airport has climbed 21 percent to 253,200 passengers in 2011. Through February, 2012 totals beat the first two months of 2011 by nearly 8 percent.

Industry changes

People in the airline industry say things could have turned out much worse, and that the response to recently high jet fuel prices -- about $120 a barrel on average in 2011, compared with about $80 in 2009, according to U.S. Department of Transportation data -- might have been considerably more severe locally and around the country.

Instead, airlines took the brunt of the downturn between 2008 and 2010, with multiple bankruptcies, mergers and outright closures. Air carriers laid off staff, eliminated routes and turned to more efficient airplane fleets. Not surprisingly, fares have risen and there are more fees for things like checking in baggage.

"There's no question ... that it's a different industry than it was just four years ago, and that's really by necessity," said John Heimlich, chief economist for the trade group Airlines for America.

Uptick in business travel

This remade, leaner industry is now benefiting from increases in business travel. In Bakersfield, that has meant oil companies taking trips to and from the oil capitals of Houston and Denver.

Chevron spokeswoman Carla Musser indicated that company employees and business partners have appreciated the direct flights to Houston, which went from having planes just less than half full when the service resumed at Meadows Field in April 2010 to flying more than two-thirds full three months later.

Musser added that United Airlines' plans to add a daily flight to Denver in June will bring greater scheduling flexibility.

"The convenience of not having to drive to Los Angeles has been a gift of time," she wrote in an email.

The same point is made by others in the local business community who also point to growing local business travel. They say going through Meadows Field instead of LAX is saving local businesses money on gasoline and parking, and reducing the hassle of standing in line for security checks.

"There's nothing like being able to use your local airport and being home 20 minutes after touchdown," said Ray Watson Jr., president of Bakersfield's Uniglobe Travel.

Time to grow?

Whether service at Meadows Field will become still more convenient through the addition of flights and destinations remains to be seen.

Officials at United -- the airline that provides all air service out of Bakersfield with the exception of the Phoenix flights -- would not discuss the company's thoughts about its performance at Meadows Field.

A spokesman for US Airlines, Andrew Christie, said the company is pleased with its Phoenix service here, but that there are no immediate plans to make changes to the airport's service level.

"We do constantly monitor and make adjustments to our schedule as demand changes," he said.

Gotcher, the county airports director, said he is not at all discouraged. He left town Monday to meet with seven airlines at a conference where he was hoping to line up additional flights for local travelers.

"We're going to try to show the Meadows Field story," he said, "and get them to go back and do a little research and maybe get them to start service."

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