On A Wing And A Prayer
Despite broad demand for more jet flights and better service, the future of commercial air travel in Monterey County remains up in the air.
Thursday, February 4, 1999
Among the many high profile public events that help make the Monterey Peninsula one of the West Coast''s top visitor destinations, none stand out more than the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am golf tournament.
Part of what makes the Pebble Beach Pro-Am such a marquee event, beyond the superlative golf and the opportunity to hobnob with the rich and famous, is the convenient access provided by the Monterey Peninsula Airport to the huge contingent of corporate executives, celebrities and assorted high-flyers who arrive for the week-long golf activities in their Gulfstreams, Lears and other state-of-the-art private jets.
But for the less well-heeled traveler, the only options available are to either fly into San Francisco or San Jose and drive down to the Peninsula, or endure the cramped but mercifully quick commuter flights into Monterey.
Local representatives of the travel and tourism industry say the influx of so many top business executives and visitors to the area represents a significant opportunity to showcase all the Peninsula has to offer as a prime vacation/convention destination.
And therein lies the rub.
For an area with a world-class reputation as a tourist destination, one which relies so heavily on tourism and conventions for financial revenue, what the Monterey Peninsula is lacking is a world-class airport. While tourism and travel officials all agree that the Monterey Peninsula Airport is an excellently run and managed operation with a flawless safety record, they also agree that what is needed is the level of commercial jet service to equal the area''s otherwise sterling reputation.
"The Monterey airport is very critical both for leisure and group travel," says Manete Belliveau, executive director of the Monterey Peninsula Visitors and Convention Bureau, "but there is a perception in the travel industry that we don''t have an airport, and what we''ve heard from travelers is they want more jet service. Now and always that has been the number one concern."
While there is no data indicating whether the lack of substantial jet service has in any way limited tourism, an increase in commercial jet service is critical if Monterey County is to continue to compete on an equal footing in the highly competitive fight for tourist/convention dollars.
"It''s hard to estimate the impact of [the level] of jet service on tourism," says Belliveau. "Smaller planes are not as attractive, especially for group and convention travel. It''s been an ongoing issue and we have met with airline representatives to encourage more jet service, but they say they need demand. There is a bit of a catch-22. If there were more jet service, there would be more demand. We have [airports] at San Francisco and San Jose which bring visitors who drive down, but people do want the option to fly in, and I have heard for a number of years that more groups would use Monterey versus flying into San Francisco or San Jose if there were more jet service."
Monterey City Manager Fred Meurer concurs that the jet service issue is a critical one--not just for the tourism industry, but for area residents who are clamoring for better service, more travel options, and more competitive fares. Unfortunately, says Meurer, the problem has nothing to do with the size or quality of the Monterey airport, but solely with the size of the local market.
"Our real strictures right now are the size of the population," says Meurer of the lack of commercial jet service. "It''s marketing and demographic numbers, not length of runway. The airlines just don''t see the need or have the desire to bring more jets."
According to Denis Horn, the airport''s general manager, the level of jet and commuter service Monterey does have is attributable primarily to the popularity of the Monterey Peninsula as a tourist destination.
"When you look at the population of the Monterey Peninsula, which is about 120,000, if that was all that was here, there would be substantially less service, maybe half as much," says Horn. "If we were not a tourist destination, our air service would be much less. About half the air traffic is tourism and conference business. The other half is locally generated. To the extent the airlines perceive demand and opportunity for profit, they will respond with service to capture that market."
Up until this month, the only jet service available in Monterey was provided solely by United Airlines, which offers two daily inbound and outbound jet flights between Monterey and San Francisco. On Feb.1, America West Airlines began running two daily non-stop jet flights between Monterey and Phoenix. The airlines plans to add two more flights on Feb.25. There are reports, however, that United, along with American and Delta airlines are interested in buying America West, immediately calling into question the future of America West''s Monterey service.
This recent flurry of activity in the airline industry, coming on top of Skywest/Delta Airlines'' planned discontinuation of service to Monterey later this month, reflects the essential character of the situation facing Monterey and smaller airports throughout the country--that the level and quality of air service is determined solely by the airline industry as a function of competition and profitability.
"Airlines are in business to turn a profit for investors, stockholders and CEOs," says Horn. "To the extent that the [airline] market goes to other airports is because demand is lower in Monterey. Carriers respond with service and price competition [elsewhere] to the extent people are driving to get better service and more price competition."
Local travel industry representatives estimate that about half of all local commercial air travel originates out of San Jose or San Francisco by residents seeking better air fares and more convenient flight schedules, or to avoid flying on the smaller commuter/feeder planes that service the larger airlines. Local travel agents say that with enough advanced planning, the price disparity for flights between Monterey and L.A., and San Jose and L.A., for example is not that great.
As to the preference for avoiding trips on the smaller commuter planes, local travel agents say that there is no other option for travelers who want to fly directly to and from Monterey. Beyond that, the perception that those planes are somehow less safe than larger jets isn''t borne out by the safety record.
Small Town Problem
"Being a small-town airport, there are less flights and less options for customers," acknowledges United Airlines station manager Robert Rotiski, of the dearth of jet flights in Monterey. "So many other airports are competing for additional flights that airlines want to put in flights that serve the public and make money.
"Our existing flights are a good barometer for future growth, and right now the demand does not exceed capacity," adds Rotiski. "We have the facilities to support more flights, and if we had more customers we could fill more planes. Right now our current jet flights go out with empty seats."
According to Horn, it was the deregulation of the airline industry in 1978, more than any other single event, that severely hurt the level of air service in Monterey. Prior to the so-called Federal Deregulation Act, the 1978 total passenger count at the Monterey airport was 637,903. A year later, the number dropped to 486,197. As a result of deregulation, the airport also lost three carriers.
"Before [deregulation], we were treated like public utilities," explains Horn. "Routes were allocated so there wasn''t too much competition.
"The rationale for deregulation was that the public would be better served by a market-based industry," adds Horn, "but instead it resulted in phenomenal market leakage [for Monterey] to other airports. As far as deregulation goes, the large markets generally benefited exceptionally well in terms of the amount of service, choices, and the cost of fares. Smaller markets haven''t shared in those benefits."
Even a year before industry-wide deregulation, Monterey Peninsula residents were clamoring for an increase in air service. A 1977, non-binding ballot measure found that 66 percent of voters favored increasing the level of service by adding at least two carriers.
In the immediate aftermath of deregulation, and the subsequent departure of Hughes and Pacific Southwest Airlines, Peninsula business in 1979 formally requested that the Monterey Peninsula Airport District and the airlines expand service. In response to the Peninsula business community, the district board stated that six flights to and from L.A. daily should represent the minimum service requirement at the airport.
Despite the limited number of jet flights in and out of Monterey, the airport nonetheless remains an active hub. Annual aircraft operations totaled 120,000 flights in 1997, of which 70 percent were general aviation flights, and only 30 percent by the commercial airlines. Approximately 545,000 passengers passed through the Monterey terminal in 1997, which represented an 18 percent increase from 1996. It is estimated by industry sources that 50 percent of local travelers depart from either San Francisco or San Jose.
Flight Path--A Brief History
To the degree that tourism drives today''s level of commercial air service, it was the demands of tourism that led Samuel F. B. Morse to set in motion the initial steps in establishing air service to the Monterey Peninsula. It was Morse who first proposed an airport in the early ''30s in order to promote his numerous resort holdings at Pebble Beach and elsewhere on the Peninsula.
Construction of what was to eventually become the Monterey Peninsula Airport began in 1935 as a joint effort between the city of Monterey and the federal Works Project Administration at a total cost of approximately $100,000.
The city had been leasing a 37-acre parcel, which was the site of the former Del Monte Polo Fields, from Morse since 1932. Prior to construction of the official airport, there was only infrequent service to the Peninsula provided as a stopover on regular L.A. to San Francisco flights and vice versa.
Morse eventually agreed to donate the land outright after the WPA insisted Monterey have clear title to the land before it would provide grant money. What was called the Monterey Peninsula Municipal Airport was officially dedicated by then-Mayor W. L. Teaby on July 4, 1936. The airport consisted of an 80-by-100-foot timber hangar, one 3,000-foot runway and another 1,800 feet long.
Reflecting the current situation Monterey finds itself in, even in the 1903s, it was very much the airlines that dictated the terms by which they would provide air service to the Peninsula.
The city had arranged to hire a private contractor to run the airport, but soon rescinded the agreement after United Airlines, which officially began service in July of 1938, decided it wouldn''t continue to provide air mail and passenger service unless it had a direct contract with the city.
At the time, United provided just two stops at the airport, one stop each on its north/south flights between San Francisco and L.A.
Once again the contract with United was to be placed in jeopardy when United threatened to terminate service unless the main runways were extended.
In order to comply with United''s demands and secure funding from the federal government for the runway expansions and other improvements, all of which were completed in 1940, Monterey needed the U.S. Army to certify that the expansion was a necessary adjunct to national defense. The improvements included expansion of both runways to 4,000 and 3,000 feet respectively, as well as construction of a new 4,000-foot runway at a cost of just under $1 million. The funding was part of a nationwide authorization by Franklin Roosevelt.
This agreement would soon become somewhat of a Faustian bargain for Monterey. As World War II increased in intensity, up until 1945, the airport was used exclusively by the military, with all other commercial flights banned except those by United. The airport was eventually returned to partial civilian control in 1946 under a joint operating agreement with the Navy.
It was in the spring of 1941 that an airport district board, composed of five publicly elected members was organized by act of the state Legislature and signed into law by then-Governor Culbert Olson. The district was formed because the city of Monterey could not afford to capitalize and finance the airport on its own. Interestingly enough, voter opposition and legislative procedural questions forced the issue to go before the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the district.
For many years, the district relied on property taxes to meet funding shortfalls. The district had proposed in 1972 a $1 per-head tax to reduce the property tax, but concern that the $1 surcharge would discourage air travel and place an excessive burden on business travelers killed that proposal.
In August of 1978, for the first time the district finalized a budget with zero property taxes, and since then has been self-sustaining.
The MPAD is one of only a few special airport districts in the state, and represents a significant entity in its own right, on a par with other individual city jurisdictions on the Peninsula.
The district includes all the Peninsula and unincorporated cities except for Carmel Valley. Situated on 600 acres, the airport has 41 employees on salary, with other functions and services provided for on a contract basis. Three hundred additional jobs have also been created through related services. The airport is entirely a user-paid facility derived from terminal rents, parking concessions, land leases, and ticket surcharges.
The Sound and The Fury
Any airport, especially one that has been in operation over 50 years and seen a large residential community built up around it, can anticipate many complaints about airplane noise, and the Monterey airport has certainly had its share of those complaints.
"The good news is we''re a downtown airport, and you can get to and from the airport any place from the Peninsula in a matter of minutes. That makes it convenient for the traveling public or corporate personnel," says airport Operations Manager Vince Huth. "The bad news is we''re a downtown airport, and have close residential neighbors. We work hard to keep [flight operations] as quiet as we can."
It was in 1980 that complaints about airport noise first became a significant issue, coming primarily from residents in the Josselyn Canyon/Fisherman''s Flats area across from the airport along Highway 68.
In response to noise complaints, the MPAD extended the main runway to enable departing aircraft to achieve higher altitude earlier on their flight path, allowed more easterly departures, requests airlines to observe a voluntary curfew on flights from between 11pm and 7am, and initiated a federally assisted program to soundproof eligible homes.
Under the soundproofing program, double-glazed, acoustically constructed glass is used to replace all windows; exterior doors are replaced, and attics are insulated. To date, the airport district has spent $9 million soundproofing 250 homes, and awaits additional funding from the FAA, which covers 80 percent of the cost to soundproof another 148 that are within the "noise impact" area.
In order to increase the level of commercial jet service in Monterey County, there have been numerous suggestions that a new airport be constructed, or existing airports elsewhere in the county be expanded to accommodate jet flights.
Although the idea of building a new airport or expanding existing ones at Marina and Salinas has been floated for decades, it appears that for the foreseeable future, the Monterey Peninsula Airport will be the sole provider for commercial flights.
"Salinas doesn''t make sense for scheduled service because it is too close to Monterey," says Horn. "It''s an either/or thing. Why would United want to replicate in Salinas? It''s all the same market area."
In 1970, Congressman Burt Talcott from Salinas first proposed that Fritzsche Airfield, now under the control of the city of Marina since the Army''s departure from Fort Ord, be converted as a civilian terminal. That recommendation was criticized by then-MPAD Chair Alton Walker as too costly at the estimated price of $40 million, and unnecessary with the proposed expansion of the San Jose airport and rail service expansion from Monterey.
In 1978, former airport district board chair Richard Tourangeau once again raised the possibility of moving the airport to Fritzsche Airfield because of encroaching development near the airport. Just a year later, the Association of Monterey Bay Area Governments (AMBAG) recommended an alternative site analysis for another airport.
Recent studies of air traffic demand cited in AMBAG''s 1991 Regional Airport System Plan (RASP), its 1995 RASP update, and a 1996 Airport Passenger Study indicates that there will be a demand in Monterey County for just under 80,000 flights, both commercial and general aviation, by 2015.
Annual runway capacity in Monterey County is 215,000 flights, and by 2015, it is anticipated that only 36 percent of airport capacity will be used.
Although the Monterey airport will remain the sole provider of commercial air service, the airports at Marina and Salinas have embarked on runway expansion and improvement programs to compete for general aviation business and to accommodate landings by larger business aircraft.
To the degree that Marina and Salinas successfully compete with Monterey for business, the potential decline of general aviation at Monterey could negatively impact the current level of service provided by Monterey.
"There is absolutely no interest [in commercial flights]," says Marina City Manager John Longley of Marina''s plans to concentrate solely on general aviation services. "The vision we have for the airport is as a general aviation airport. We''ll be competing for general aviation business, but hopefully it will be friendly competition."
According to Longley, Marina is currently negotiating new hangar leases, adding precision and non-precision approaches to the airport, and making general improvement to airport infrastructure and services.
Over at the Salinas airport, manager Jim Chappel says general aviation, which recorded a total of 85,000 operations last year, will also be the primary focus. The airport is currently extending its main runway from 5,000 to 6,000 feet.
With an ongoing, $2 million renovation project nearing completion, Horn says the Monterey Airport is well-poised to accommodate any future growth while maintaining the current high-quality level of service. And with the recent termination of commuter bus service from Monterey to the San Francisco and San Jose airports, the Monterey airport could in fact see a bump in passengers.
"Whether or not we''ll have bigger airplanes, lower fares and longer haul non-stop flights is a market phenomenon, a function of demand, supply and profitability," says Horn. "My feeling is we''ll always have adequate air service; I won''t say premium service, however, because you have to be a major hub for that." cw