Who the F*&@ is California Pacific Airlines?

Who the F*&@ Is

There are no columns more fun to write than those diving into some obscure little airline that has grandiose startupCalifornia Pacific Airlines plans. This time, it’s California Pacific, but it’s different from most of the others I’ve profiled. First of all, these actually have some money and have a shot at getting off the ground. Second of all, the idea isn’t a bad one. That doesn’t mean I think the plan is perfect, but this is certainly one of the more promising startups I’ve profiled here.

California Pacific, or hilariously enough for all you Canucks, CP Air, is planning to set up shop in Carlsbad, California. Carlsbad lies in north San Diego County, about 35 miles north of San Diego’s Lindbergh Field and 60 miles southeast of John Wayne Airport in Orange County. Today, only United flies to Carlsbad with six daily props up to LAX. That’s it. US Airways used to fly in from Phoenix, but those flights are gone.

So why the heck do we need more service at this airport when it’s surrounded by others? Well it’s really not going to draw from Orange County. Even though it isn’t that far, people in Orange County don’t think about going south for their flights. This is really targeted at people in north San Diego County, and that’s a big group of people. There is a lot of business in North County and traffic can suck driving down to Lindbergh. Then you have to park and wait in line as you do at any big airport. Carlsbad, meanwhile, just got upgraded from a double-wide trailer to a nice and small terminal that is completely efficient. You can roll up and be on a plane in just a couple minutes, so the time savings are dramatic.

Carlsbad Airport

Despite the new terminal, however, the runway is pretty short at 4,897 feet. That’s almost a thousand feet shorter than the already very short runways at John Wayne, so they really can’t fly very many types of planes out of there, at least not with a full load.

So what will CP Air be doing? Flying Embraer 170s. These airplanes can fly out of there since the runway is just about the same length as London/City and they fly in there safely (with crazy dive-bombing approach procedures as well). They also have decent range, even on the short runway so they can cover the western US. I might like to see the Q400 here, but they wanted jets and this is probably the right one to choose considering the contraints.

I actually met with one of the guys working on this startup (a frequent Cranky reader), and we spoke for awhile about it. The airline is planning 4 times a day to Sacramento, Oakland, San Jose, and Phoenix. They’re also looking at 3 times a day to Vegas and a weekly trip down to Cabo.

What don’t I like about this? With the exception of the weekly trip to Cabo, these are all Southwest Airlines markets and that’s bad news for CP Air. Yes, CP Air can save you time all else being equal, but Southwest has 13 daily flights from San Diego to Oakland alone. That’s a huge frequency advantage that may very well prevent a lot of North County passengers (who already use Southwest anyway) from shifting to CP Air. If Southwest wants to play hardball, they can, not too mention United and their corporate contracts.

I’m also not a fan of the aircraft configuration. These planes are flying on 1 hour hops yet they’re planning on having First Class, Business Class, and Coach. Seriously? Who needs that? It adds complexity and takes away seat density that you’d really want to have to keep costs per seat low. I’d ditch it and maybe have a couple rows of extra legroom at most if they really think they need it.

Unlike most startups, I like the market area and the service plan, but if I were these guys, I’d be doing everything I could to keep things simple and cut out operational complexity. I’d also see if I could find a way into someone else’s frequent flier program. Maybe Alaska would set up a frequent flier partnership since they do it with everyone else? That would go a long way to attracting business travelers, that’s for sure, though I would be surprised if they could work that out easily.

Another X factor here? The founder. Ted Vallas founded Air Resorts to do the same thing in 1980, and now he’s back again and some of what he says concerns me. For example, he says, “My business plan of 1980 was nearly identical to my proposed plan of 2009.” Things have changed a lot since then, so a statement like that makes me very nervous.

To sum it up, the focus here has to be on the local business guys. Tourism is not going to be a good market here, so they should just forget about it. If people want to go to San Diego attractions, they’ll fly to San Diego. Legoland is right near the airport in Carlsbad, but nobody flies to San Diego just to go to Legoland. North County is not a destination. It’s all about business, so if they can make inroads there, despite their frequency disadvantage then they might be on to something.

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43 comments on “Who the F*&@ is California Pacific Airlines?

  1. About time we had some new ‘blood’ around here. And why do people think you have to have 10+ flights between two city pairs to succeed. And while tourist may not use Carlsbad, they may if they will be staying with or near relatives living in the area, traveling to Oceanside or the other beach cities in the area. Locals living there may want to come up to the bay area or head to Vegas for a little vacation and not want to travel down to SAN or connect via LAX.

    If they do start up, I’m sure I’ll start seeing some joint ads for the airline and Legoland in the local paper. And a jet still looks better in an ad then a prop plane.

    1. And why do people think you have to have 10+ flights between two city pairs to succeed.

      Because when it comes to business travel for short flights, you do. Frequency is the name of the game, and if you don’t have it and someone else does, then you lose out.

  2. I get very nervous about any start-up targeting business pax. Unless they are woefully, and I mean WOEFULLY, underserved, then how do you win? You can’t offer sufficient frequency up front without simply hemoraging cash, and you can’t really win over business pax without sufficient frequency. Then the consessions you make to try to convert conservative business travelers to your early adapters (3 class service on a 170? OUCH!) end up haunting you when you inevitably pivot towards leisure to try to fill the planes.
    Sincerely wish them the best, and love Carlsbad airport, but oh boy.

  3. What I like about Carlsbad is the inexpensive parking. Compare this to San Diego Lindbergh Field which costs over $21-26 a day. Carlsbad costs about $3 a day.

    1. There are several third-party lots in the $10-11/day range, mostly along Pacific Highway. I’ve seen as low as $8.75/day at SAN. And that doesn’t include the discounts you can get from printing a coupon from http://www.longtermparking.com.

      In regards to the three-class thing, what they call Business Class looks like what United Express calls Economy Plus on their E-170s. And the lower-density configuration may help lighten the load a little bit to squeeze a bit more range out of Carlsbad’s short runway.

  4. This seems like the southewest startup plan,except they have biz and 1st class for 2 hour flights ??? It just doesn’t make sense. Like you said southwest is already here, they don’t have first/biz class and for short trips who cares about that ? Is the San Diego market that big ?

    1. No, no. Southwest is not already here. Southwest is in San Diego and CP is in Carlsbad, so they are different markets.

    2. Yes the San Diego market is big as SAN is the second largest city in California and the ninth largest in the USA. Plus it draws traffic from across the Mexican border which is only minutes away and there is a large military presence.

  5. It seems they should ‘SWA Proof’ some markets and routes like Lynx did with Frontier.

    Perhaps a flight to Santa Rosa in Sonoma County would be a better fit then Oakland? Or at least try the markets and see?

    I mean, they have wine country for the vacationers, plus there is a lot of business that happens in Sonoma County. I know Horizon flies this route out of LAX and onto PDX & SEA.

  6. Brett, thank you so much for covering and commenting on California Pacific. As a Carlsbad resident I’m excited to learn more about this new airline.

    Some remarks on your comments:

    On convenience: This is a definite plus that would get me on board CP. Even though parking at Carlsbad is no longer free nor directly in front of the double-wide, I totally agree that “you can roll up and be on a plane in just a couple minutes.” Flying the United turboprop to LA out of Carlsbad now saves me about 60-90 minutes each way from the driving/parking/big airport security required for a trip out of Lindbergh. Big plus for business travelers.

    Embraer 170s: Yaay, comfort and quiet! And on the CP website, the three-class configuration isn’t that convoluted: a small big-seat 1st class section and a few rows of Economy Plus “business.” Will be appreciated by those business travelers used to the big seat. And with the wider 170 seats & no middle seat, I think in this case the back of the plane won’t be “economy minus.”

    Competition with Southwest: Again, for us North County dwellers, getting on a Lindbergh flight adds another 60-90 minutes each way; I don’t see how SWA can even compete. I also don’t know that CP plans to pull San Diego residents up north. And regardless, everyone in SD county will love and benefit from a good’ol fare war.

    Business flyers: Both Genentech and Life Technologies are huge North County employers who have HQs and facilities in San Francisco. Probably fill up the Oakland flights alone with these guys! I think the convenience factor will trump the flight frequency disadvantage for business travelers.

    Tourism: Not just Legoland here! Especially in the summertime, Carlsbad and all the North County beaches are full of tourists; I’d call it a “destination.” Plus my family lives in Sacramento :)

    The Business Plan: I was looking forward to hearing your comments. I’d like to believe that a PSA-like airline could exist in today’s business climate and I understand your skepticism.

    I’m hoping to get on one of these flights soon and I wish CP luck!

  7. I love flying out of CLD and mourn the decision of US to drop it. Small, good location and super easy to get in and out of. However, CLD has one runway, what happens if they need to do work on it? Also, that runway is short, the airport is built on a landfill and they really can’t lengthen it. Multi class service is insane. It could work, but they really need to market CLD as a convenient choice to the more affluent folks in North County.

    1. SAN is also a one runway airport. Runway work gets done overnight during the departure curfew; IIRC airlines accommodated this by dropping their scheduled late night arrivals as well.

    1. I was thinking of Concord when I was reading this post. PSA had 4 flights a day (1 on Saturdays I think) between CCR and LAX with those BAe-146 ‘Smiliners’. And there was no reason to use CCR unless you were a local business or resident needing transportation to/from that area and the L.A. basin. At least the Carlsbad area has locals, businesses, Legoland, and beaches.

      1. PSA/USAir also had to deal with the undying enmity of those living next to CCR. Still, it was so nice to use it (once) compared to flying out of SFO or even OAK.

      2. Wonder if they will be using the main terminals @ KOAK or will they work out something with the bizjet joints on the North Field. That would certainly make it more convenient @ OAK.

        CCR looks like they are going to build a new terminal, soon. I’m sure the noise abatement howler monkeys will get their say, if that were to happen, though.

        How about LVK? They have a couple of large corporate HQs in the area, and easy access to other areas.

        1. Likely will not use the corporate FBO on the east side of KOAK due to TSA requirements and baggage/passenger interchange issues.

  8. Great story Brett! It’s a bummer that only United Express operates out of CLD. American Eagle also used to fly out of here, and also to LAX. I would support flying CP to the bay area and Vegas. Like you’ve stated – It’s much nicer now that it’s no longer a double wide trailer. It would also relieve some congestion from Lindbergh. The 170’s are nice birds as well – no middle seats and room to breathe!

  9. I just looked at the CPA founder’s remarks. He misspelled the word “hangars” and the name “Lindbergh” in them. I know some people think spelling is overrated but for an airline founder to misspell those two things would send a BIG red flag to me, were I a potential investor in said airline.


  10. I would use it alot, just the time savings factor. I can be at the airport in less then 10 minutes versus 45 minutes to an hour to get to San Diego Airport. It takes no time to get through security. So for me it is strictly a convenience factor of both the outbound and return. I figure I can save 3-4 hours a trip, and for day trips to the bay area, phoenix, etc. that is a big chunk of time savings for the day. I expect that I will fly out of CLD 4 or 5 times a month, when it starts.

  11. You’d like to see a Q400? You obviously do not know of the reliability issues with this aircraft. If your mission is to help “cranky” fliers, recommending that aircraft is counter-productive.


  12. As someone who works at CRQ/CLD, you be very surprised at the number of vacation travelers that we get at our airport. United’s planes are not full of only business people looking to go to LAX for a transfer to wherever. We have a lot of people who go to LAX just to get to these destinations. (i.e., Bay Area, points east) US Air was doing a fantastic business, their flights were packed full, they pulled out for reasons other then revenue. If they get the exposure then need, the PR and advertising, people will be flocking to Carlsbad. And that Vegas flight, Southwest can’t fly enough planes to Vegas. I’m betting on CP doin’ just fine.

  13. As a member of the Carlsbad Community and as a traveler I welcome a new airline industry that can contribute to the commons sense of traveling. San Diego (SAN) has not yet grown up to the necessities of its community. The infantile behavior of city planners is about to get a big surprise with CLD and CPAir

  14. I’d love to see a Carlsbad to Tucson route. Have you ever tried to get to Tucson from S. Calif.? You can’t there from here. This route is a very underserved market and a small airport like Carlsbad seems like a natural to me.

  15. I’ll leave all the airline comparisons to those “experts.” Just to set the records straight. Carlsbad is a tourism/meetings destination. One only has to check out the TOT that the city collects from the hotels to confirm. Golf, beaches, trails, lagoons, shopping, dining, sailing, water sports, great weather, less traffic than OC & LA and no terrorist attacks. What else would you do on vacation?

  16. I have to say, an airline to take full advantage of Carlsbad-Palomar Airport would be good, lets just hope that this can get United to fly to other places than LAX out of Carlsbad, and have some other airlines offer service to there,

  17. re the last comment about ‘no-one flies to San Diego just to go to Legoland’ – well I just did pretty much that SFO-LAX-Carlsbad with my 4 year old. It was super-convenient after a day at the park to hop on to United’s Brasilia to LAX and then back SFO. But I’d go OAK-Carlsbad on California Pacific in a heartbeat next time…Good luck to CP Air..

  18. Great! Latest word from the airport was that they were trying to get flying by June of 2011. The more flights the better! Oops… full disclosure… my office is two blocks from the terminal. I usually stroll over to catch LAX flights, leave my car at work! Selfish, I know, but really cool… so, go CP Air!

  19. I Don’t see how this airline could make it, the Carlsbad area seems too small to support a full time operation, and how will this airline be able to compete against Frontier or Southwest in Phoenix or Sacramento? I Personally don’t see this airline getting off the ground until late 2013 if at all. However i do wish them luck.

  20. As a business traveler living in Chula Vista, If I am flying to one of the CP Air destinations and can avoid San Diego Airport then it would be worth it.
    To avoid the traffic, parking problems, long lines and crowding at San Diego then the extra few minutes drive will be worth it!

  21. Three classes of service won’t last for long. They will be forced to re-configure the aircraft to remain competitive. So what’s the contingency when Southwest offers “free” flights out of SAN to all of CP’s destinations and crushes this little start-up like like a bug on a car window? CLD usage is at a historic low. I think CP has over estimated the demand in North County. Life Technologies has several private jets at CLD, so they won’t be flying this airline to OAK. CLD is a 24/7 airport. There is no curfew, so when the runway is closed, it’s closed. If this company ever goes public, I’ll be shorting the stock from day one.

  22. short queue at check in, less hassle at security check point, no-middle seat, pre-seat assignment, first bag ride free, less for car parking, what else does a busy passenger require?

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