In 2009, just over one thousand people boarded flights in Merced, and only about 24-hundred boarded in Visalia.
Passengers who fly in and out of Merced Regional Airport get the VIP treatment. There's no waiting in long security lines, no crowded terminals, and they often have the whole plane to themselves.
In fact, we saw several nearly empty planes over the course of two weeks. Only two people arrived on a weekday morning flight, followed by just one pleased passenger on a flight that same afternoon.
We captured a similar scene at the Visalia Muncipal Airport, which was just a little busier. Neither city came close to filling the 19 seat planes. But passengers don't have to pay much for the spacious accommodations. Flights from Merced and Visalia to Ontario in Southern California start at less than eighty-dollars each way. That's because taxpayers are also chipping in about one and a half million dollars for service at each airport.
Chris Mathys of the Valley Taxpayers Coalition says the federal program that makes the flights possible is pure pork. It's called the essential air service, and it was created in 1978 to keep airlines from abandoning small towns when the industry was deregulated. It now provides more than 150-million dollars in subsidies for rural communities across the country.
Mathys says the program is no longer essential since residents can just drive to other nearby airports, like Fresno, instead. And critics around the country agree.
But Merced city officials say the service is necessary. They argue it's not only convenient for local travelers, but also crucial for attracting and keeping businesses.
Officials recently announced Merced will start offering two daily flights to McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas instead of Ontario starting April 7th.
And the city is confident the change will make a dramatic difference. Airport Superintendent Ron Elliot points out that in 2007 when Merced offered flights to the smaller North Las Vegas Airport, enplanements reached nearly 10,000 for the year. That number dropped to just over 2000 the following year when Great Lakes Airlines took over and switched to Ontario.
The city is hoping more passengers will help taxpayers feel their money is being better spent.
Visalia will keep its Ontario flights for now, but the airport manager says the city will likely eventually add the Las Vegas route.