California Forum

Competing for international destinations

Of America’s 35 biggest metropolitan regions, Sacramento, at No. 27, has the fewest international flights. The only international flight departing from Sacramento is to Guadalajara, Mexico.
Of America’s 35 biggest metropolitan regions, Sacramento, at No. 27, has the fewest international flights. The only international flight departing from Sacramento is to Guadalajara, Mexico. Sacramento Bee file

Earlier this month, the city of Reno announced new nonstop air service to London starting in 2015. And while the connection will be seasonal and depart only twice weekly, it made the Biggest Little City in the World seem just a little bit bigger.

Of course, Sacramento is actually a whole lot bigger than the Biggest Little City, with a metro population nearly five times larger than Reno’s. But the only international flight departing from Sacramento is to Guadalajara, Mexico. And, yeah, Reno has that, too. So does Fresno.

In fact, of America’s 35 biggest metropolitan regions, Sacramento (No. 27) has the fewest international flights of them all. Smaller regions with overseas air service include Cincinnati (to Paris), Austin, Texas (to London), San Jose (to Tokyo) and Salt Lake City (to Paris; and coming this spring, Amsterdam). Portland, Ore., only slightly larger than Sacramento, has nonstop service to Amsterdam; Frankfurt, Germany; Tokyo; and Keflavik, Iceland.

Sacramento also comes up short in the number of flights to Mexico and Canada – the city lost service to Canada in 2008 – and major domestic destinations (our only nonstop to New York is a red-eye).

So how do we turn this around?

In the highly competitive world of new route acquisitions, airports rarely act alone. It turns out that it takes a village to reach the world. In cities across the country, political and business leaders aggressively work with their respective airports to attract new service.

The reason they’re spending extraordinary amounts of time, energy and money on “air audience development” is because it can pay extraordinary dividends by helping lure new companies, keeping homegrown companies and creating more accessible tourist destinations.

But competition is fierce, with cities offering concessions on parking, airport fees, advertising and much more.

According to The Columbus Dispatch in Ohio, five midsized U.S. cities are currently competing for one nonstop slot to London via British Airways: Nashville, Tenn.; St. Louis; Columbus; Cleveland; and Indianapolis are reportedly in the running. Four of those cities are smaller than Sacramento, and none are sitting on their hands.

For example, earlier this year, a group of political, business and tourism leaders in Nashville formed the Nashville Air Service Coalition to aggressively court new flights. Among its members is the vice-chancellor of Vanderbilt University, the CEOs of the local chamber of commerce and the convention and visitors bureau, and the heads of local banks, law firms and health care companies.

Even though Cincinnati offers nonstop service to Paris, it’s pushing hard to re-establish lost routes to London and Frankfurt, and obtain new service to Tokyo. Johnna Reeder, CEO of REDI Cincinnati – a 15-county job creation agency – told The Cincinnati Enquirer this summer: “It is critical to our economic development efforts to maintain and grow our direct international flights. We can’t give up on this issue.”

In 2012, our region got a taste of how critical air service can be when the area’s largest publicly traded company, Folsom’s Waste Connections, departed for Texas.

At the time, CEO Ron Mittelstaedt cited California’s poor business and tax climate, but also repeatedly mentioned the need for easier air travel. “This was an issue for us,” he said when asked recently, stating the need for direct service to cities like Memphis, Tenn.; Des Moines, Iowa; New Orleans; and Anchorage, Alaska.

We lost Waste Connections, but we need to make sure other companies stick around. The global video game company Electronic Arts, for example, is one of the tech world’s biggest names, and members of its Sacramento studio fly weekly to its Austin studio, always through a connecting city. But the head of the Sacramento studio, Mark Otero, says a nonstop would benefit his company, saving valuable time and aiding in employee recruitment. “This generation of IT workers is highly mobile,” he says, explaining that the ability to connect to other cities quickly and easily is an important factor in the tech industry.

And while Sacramento has some challenges in attracting new routes – most notably our proximity to San Francisco International – we also have advantages, like a billion-dollar terminal that opened in 2011 and is operating at a fraction of capacity.

Sacramento also has a nationally visible mayor in Kevin Johnson, who is currently the president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. In other cities, mayors have personally gotten involved in courting airlines.

In April, citing the impacts that increased nonstop flights have on job creation, Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman announced a 14-member task force – including the CEO of the local chamber and the chairman of the city’s Major League Soccer team – charged with making those new flights a reality. In August, a delegation from Columbus traveled to London to woo British Airways.

As part of the efforts to re-establish nonstop service to Tokyo, San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed traveled to Japan in 2011 to meet with the CEO of All Nippon Airways. In 2013, All Nippon launched service between the two cities. And on a 2012 visit to Beijing, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter met with executives at Air China to discuss nonstop service between China and Philly.

The time is ripe to form our own task force, with a new Sacramento airport director, John Wheat, who started last year; a new incoming CEO at the Metro Chamber, Peter Tateishi; and the formation of the Greater Sacramento Area Economic Council.

If you’re still not convinced, consider that on Nov. 4, a man named Mark Hutchison was elected lieutenant governor of Nevada, and told the Reno Gazette-Journal that one of the first things he would do is form a task force to bring more flights to Reno. Part of his reasoning: “I would like to see us have a real concerted effort and spend time in California (luring businesses to Nevada),” he told the paper.

Them’s fightin’ words right there, Sacramento. Let’s make sure that by the time the next election rolls around, we are in a position to send Mr. Hutchison a one-way ticket to somewhere far, far away – courtesy of Sacramento International Airport.

Rob Turner is co-editor of Sactown Magazine. A longer version of this article originally appeared in Sactown Magazine