Business & Real Estate

Affordable airline boosts business at Stockton Metropolitan

Two hours before a recent 2:15 p.m. flight to Las Vegas, the Stockton Metropolitan Airport, as if on cue, came to life.

Travelers packed the small terminal, many toting carry-on luggage. A few vacation-goers headed to the airport’s only restaurant for preflight drinks, while in one corner, a group of women in heels and party attire checked in for the 75-minute flight to Sin City.

Nestled in an industrial area 55 miles south of Sacramento, Stockton’s once-neglected airport is seeing something of a resurgence and is developing a regional reputation as a hub for the budget-minded leisure traveler.

And that’s with just one airline and only a handful of flights a day.

Low-cost carrier Allegiant Air is the San Joaquin County-owned airport’s sole airline, operating semifrequent flights to Las Vegas, seasonal flights to Honolulu and, as of May, a route to Mesa, Ariz. With the slogan “Travel is our deal,” the airline caters to vacationers, offering a product that is cheap on price but with no frills.

Allegiant’s flights out of Stockton go as low as $37 for a one-way trip to Las Vegas. A flight to Honolulu can be had for $117.

“We’re very blessed to have Allegiant,” said airport Director Harry Mavrogenes. “They picked up five years ago when we had no (passenger) service.”

Until then, Stockton Metropolitan primarily catered to private planes after losing most of its major passenger service in the late 1980s, following deregulation of the airline industry.

Headquartered in Enterprise, Nev., near Las Vegas, Allegiant promises to fly you from point A to point B. But almost everything else will cost extra.

Using a credit card to book your reservation? That’s $4 per flight. Want to bring a carry-on bag? That’s $35. Checked baggage? That’s $50 per suitcase.

And flight attendants don’t offer free sodas or peanuts.

“You as the customer are empowered to pick and choose what things you want,” said Jessica Wheeler, an Allegiant spokeswoman. “We don’t lump the price of carrying your bag or giving you a soda into the price of your ticket, so we can offer that incredibly low fare.”

The airline typically focuses on small and regional airports that don’t charge high passenger fees or operating expenses. One example is Bellingham International Airport in Washington, just across the border from Vancouver, Canada. Wheeler said the airport attracts many Canadians who opt to drive over and fly to destinations in the United States because of Allegiant’s low fares.

“Going into the smaller airports, we’re not competing with other airlines directly,” Wheeler said, noting that Allegiant has competition on only 20 of its more than 250 routes.

Even with add-on fees, travelers interviewed at Stockton Metropolitan said Allegiant’s fares are still significantly cheaper than those offered at Sacramento International Airport.

Tait Panoke, 31, and Krystle Cogburn, 28, both of Sacramento, boarded a July 3 flight to Las Vegas for the Fourth of July holiday, paying a combined total of $418.98 round trip, including $66 in baggage fees. A comparable Southwest Airlines flight from Sacramento to Las Vegas would have cost around $350 per person round trip.

The Oak Park couple also showered praise on Stockton’s airport.

“It’s laid back and less busy than Sacramento (International Airport),” Panoke said.

The 1960s-era airport is located in an industrial and semirural area between Interstate 5 and Highway 99. Rolling into the airport is a breeze, with plenty of overnight parking available in front of the terminal for $10 a day, a rate that starts Tuesday. For day use, parking is free.

There are some drawbacks. Allegiant will periodically add or cancel flights based on demand, Wheeler said. Because of the infrequent flight schedule, don’t expect to easily hail a taxicab from the airport. And unlike the upscale dining options found at Sacramento International, Stockton Metropolitan has one sit-down restaurant with diner fare and a Subway sandwich shop under construction.

But those hindrances apparently aren’t deterring passengers. In 2013, Stockton Metropolitan served about 140,000 passengers, a 13.63 percent increase over the previous year, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. By comparison, Sacramento International had about 4.2 million passengers, a drop of 2.36 percent from 2012.

Sacramento International has become one of the more expensive airports in the country for carriers to do business, the result of a $1 billion Terminal B expansion in 2011. It now charges airlines an estimated $17 fee per passenger. Seven years ago, it charged airlines only $5.48 per passenger.

Stockton Metropolitan’s passenger fee is $1.39.

Sacramento County Director of Airports John Wheat brushed off suggestions that Stockton Metropolitan is a serious competitor to Sacramento International.

“What you usually see when Allegiant comes into the market, you’re not bleeding traffic away from anybody. You’re just stimulating the (local) market because the airfares are just so low,” Wheat said. “We have very little leakage out of our primary area going to other airports.”

Wheat called 2014 a “leveling-out year with a small growth component” for Sacramento International, noting that future passenger growth depends on the local economy.

For now, the Stockton airport’s bargain-basement fares are drawing people from beyond Sacramento. Software engineer Nitin Jindal, 31, of Sunnyvale drove almost two hours for a flight to Las Vegas with his parents, brother and wife.

“It was 50 percent cheaper than San Francisco International Airport,” Jindal said of the fares. “We would have taken a road trip (to Las Vegas) if the tickets weren’t so cheap.”

Of the drive from the Bay Area, Jindal added, “Seeing all the agriculture coming to Stockton was a pleasant surprise.”

The Ninman family – father, son and grandfather – drove more than 200 miles from Redding for the privilege of flying out of Stockton, at $605 for three people round trip.

“If you’re driving two hours to Sacramento, why not do an extra 45 minutes to Stockton to save some cash?” asked Gary Ninman Jr., while sipping a beer on a patio overlooking the tarmac.

For leisure travelers, ticket price is a big factor in choosing an airport.

“If (consumers) have a pretty good fare charged by Allegiant, that may tip the balance between driving to Stockton or staying in Sacramento,” said Jan Brueckner, an economics professor and airline industry expert at the University of California, Irvine.

Brueckner noted, however, that Stockton Metropolitan faces an uphill battle to expand beyond the occasional flights because of the sheer number of nearby airports, including Oakland International, Mineta San Jose International and San Francisco International.

“Airlines will go where there’s demand,” Brueckner said. “Demand is a function of the local economy plus proximity of nearby big airports. Proximity reduces the demand for local air services, and Stockton’s local economy hasn’t been so good.”

But that’s not stopping Mavrogenes, Stockton airport’s director, from dreaming big. He has plans to transform the sleepy terminal into a hub of domestic and international flights.

San Joaquin County officials are actively seeking additional low-cost or legacy carriers to join the airport, with hopes of adding flights to Mexico. A proposal to build a U.S. customs facility – needed for international flights – is under discussion.

For now, Mavrogenes said, adding a flight to Los Angeles International Airport would be huge.

“If I can get L.A. or one of the major hubs,” he said, “our customers will be able to hook up from there to anywhere in the world.”