Business · Fresno · Highlight

Fresno officials, business leaders see Southwest’s “wheels up” as economic launchpad

“How many of us want to go wheels up to Vegas on a Southwest flight?”

That was the question posed by Fresno Chamber of Commerce chief executive Nathan Ahle amid a jubilant press conference touting Southwest Airlines’ decision to fly to Fresno-Yosemite International Airport.

For California’s fifth-largest city, the possibilities of jetting off on the cheap – it appears – are endless.

The airline-driven boon for the local economy was at the top of Christmas wishlists for two of Fresno’s top business advocates.

“Business recruitment is what we do for a living,” Fresno Economic Development Corporation chief Lee Ann Eager said in a Wednesday briefing celebrating the news.

“One of the things that every business asks when they send the initial request for information to us – whether or not you have the land, whether or not you have the infrastructure – is ‘what flights do you have available?’ ‘What airlines do you have available to get us back-and-forth across the country?'”

The lack of Southwest Airlines offerings was a missing puzzle piece, she added.

“They have that brand loyalty and I think it adds a sort of legitimacy to the airport that we all know is there because we use it and we see it and we’ve been there,” Ahle said. “But I think to those looking to relocate or expand or even folks around the region – it’s a tremendous opportunity for all of us.”

It’s Meikle Day

You may not have ever heard of Kevin Meikle before, but Fresno’s aviation director is perhaps most singularly responsible for nabbing the sought-after carrier.

Sharing screen time with Fresno Mayor Lee Brand, the business advocates didn’t shy away from giving him the plaudits for delivering big to close out 2020.

Eager and Ahle joined Meikle and other airport officials in pitching the City of Fresno and its airport to Southwest executives in early November.

Ahle noted that their appearance was a chance to underscore the community support, but that Meikle did much of the heavy lifting.

“By the time we got to that point, he and his team had the ball at the two-yard line,” said Ahle of Meikle’s efforts to deliver the much-longed airline to the market.

An eye for the future

While the promise of Southwest’s arrival is still shrouded in some mystery – largely when they’ll take off and where Fresno flights will land – the airline may turn out to be the shot-in-the-arm needed to quickly establish solid return-on-investment for a different endeavor at the airport.

The arrival of the budget airline will undoubtedly cause some shuffling of terminals to accommodate the newest carrier on the block, Meikle said.

But Fresno’s bigger move is embracing and leveraging the carrier as part of its expansion.

Currently, Fresno-Yosemite is in the midst of its first phase of a nine-figure expansion project known as “FATForward.”

The first phase is also the most apparent for the average Fresnan driving by. Why? It’s the three-story parking garage currently being constructed.

Beyond the garage, Fresno-Yosemite will add a second, expandable concourse to accommodate more flights. The second concourse will begin with two initial boarding gates.

Depending on flight volume, the design of the second concourse will enable airport officials to continue to expand.

While Southwest’s sheer volume of flights in most of its market cities often subsume airport operations, the flexibility of Fresno’s expansion may be a ticket to a booming central California hub.

Until then, Fresno travelers of all stripes merely await the ability to punch their own ticket to parts unknown.

Alex Tavlian
Alex Tavlian is the Executive Editor of The San Joaquin Valley Sun and Executive Director of Valley Future Foundation. You can reach Alex at alex.tavlian@sjvsun.com.