The wait is over. California Pacific, an airline that has been around for years in theory, has finally taken flight. The airline is currently operating… from Denver to the bustling South Dakota metropolises of Pierre and Watertown? That’s probably not what you expected, but don’t worry, there’s a reason for that. The airline will come to its new home in Carlsbad starting November 1.
California Pacific has been nearly a decade in the making (or longer, depending upon when you think the quest actually began). Founder Ted Vallas is an old airline guy, and I mean that in two ways. He was an airline guy years ago when he founded Air Resorts, and also, he’s just really old with 97 years under his belt. Ted has been the driving force behind the effort to bring short-haul air service to Carlsbad in north San Diego County.
Carlsbad is in a prime location in a heavily-populated, wealthy part of north San Diego County. It’s about an hour south of John Wayne Airport and 45 minutes north of San Diego Airport… in no traffic. The problem is there’s always traffic, and so travel to those airports is time-consuming and frustrating.
Carlsbad has had sporadic air service over the years, most recently with a short, ill-fated effort by Elite to serve Vegas. Before that United Express flew Brasilias to LAX and US Airways Express had Dash-8s heading to Phoenix. None of that exists today The problem isn’t necessarily a lack of demand but rather a very short runway. Operational restrictions make it tough for airlines.
When I first wrote about California Pacific in 2010, the airline was going to focus on business-friendly markets within an hour or so away. That hasn’t changed, but the road has been long.
Things actually moved along quite nicely in those early days. The airline received initial approvals to begin operating, and it even acquired an aircraft. I went down to Carlsbad for a press event on the Embraer 170 in 2012. That aircraft was expected to be able to use the Carlsbad runway without too much of a weight restriction for those short flights.
Being on that airplane, I figured that the airline might actually get in the air, but I was oh so wrong. The airline stumbled and couldn’t get through the certification gauntlet. It shed a bunch of people and looked like it was done. But apparently you can never count out Ted Vallas.
California Pacific decided to regroup and realize that getting a new certificate was going to be far too difficult. It switched course.
Earlier this year, California Pacific bought Aerodynamics, Inc (ADI). ADI has been around for a long time, but it ran into all kinds of issues a few years back when its owners got themselves into trouble.
ADI had dabbled in a few different areas. Most notably, it entered into an agreement with Great Lakes to operate as Great Lakes Jet Express. Effectively, it would let Great Lakes sell its tickets, so it didn’t need to invest in a reservation system or marketing in general. It could at the same time take advantage of Great Lakes’s interline relationships, or so it thought. But then… Great Lakes tanked. Even though Great Lakes was gone, Jet Express continued. But it was an airline with a limited and shaky model.
Enter California Pacific, an airline in search of a certificate. When the purchase was completed, California Pacific announced that it would rebrand all existing service under the California Pacific name. That “existing service” is the lone route from Watertown to Pierre and on to Denver and back twice a day.
ADI has 4 ex-Chautauqua Embraer 145s and that airplane is going to be put into service in California beginning on November 1.
To start, California Pacific will have four destinations from Carlsbad. (The fourth was announced after initial launch.)
- 2 daily (1 on weekends) roundtrips to San Jose (one in the morning, one in the evening) – start Nov 1
- 4 weekly (Mon/Wed/Fri/Sun) roundtrips to Reno (mid-day) – start Nov 1
- 3 weekly (Tue/Thu/Sat) roundtrips to Vegas (mid-day) – start Nov 15
- 1 daily (except Sun) roundtrip to Phoenix/Mesa (afternoon) – start Nov 15
And that’s what we know today, so… what do I think? I think it’s going to be an uphill battle.
San Jose is the market with the best coverage, and you can actually do an easy day trip there. But Southwest has 12 daily flights from San Diego and another 10 daily from Orange County. If your trip happens to fit with the schedule California Pacific has, then great. But chances are that it won’t, and there’s little chance you’ll go one way from Carlsbad and the other to San Diego or Orange County.
The other markets are even worse. Phoenix at least has a flight every day, but it’s during the afternoon (on weekdays, at least)… and oh, it’s not Phoenix. The airline is flying to Phoenix/Mesa. That’ll be a great flight for people who need to be in the East Valley (Mesa, Gilbert, etc) , but it’s less convenient than Phoenix Sky Harbor for most everyone else.
The Vegas schedule is really odd with nothing on the peak days of Friday and Sunday, but apparently the airline sees more opportunity flying the airplane to Reno on peak days for Tahoe traffic. It looks like California Pacific is scheduling less around customer demand and more around what works with the aircraft’s schedule. I understand you need to balance that, but lacking a great commercial schedule is going to really hurt its chances.
Fares aren’t overly attractive either, at least not in advance. I see San Jose and Vegas for $99 each way, Phoenix/Mesa for $129 each way, and Reno for $149 each way. Then again, there appears to be no a la carte pricing at all. Fares include at least one free bag and you can reserve seats (even exit rows) without additional charge.
In the end, this will be a tough fight for the airline despite it having a nice niche at an attractive airport nobody else currently serves. Even with 10 planes and a better schedule, California Pacific still couldn’t serve every need of the north San Diego County traveler. Yes, it has the advantage that Southwest can’t come into Carlsbad with 737s, but that doesn’t mean Southwest won’t get aggressive at wooing people from even thinking about trying California Pacific, if it deems the effort necessary.
I wish the airline luck, and I hope I get the chance to fly it sometime. But I’d be lying if I said I think it has a good shot at success.