After years of false starts, California Pacific Airlines takes flight

After years of trying to get off the ground, a start-up airline in northern San Diego County can celebrate the start of flight service.

California Pacific Airlines was founded eight years ago by entrepreneur Ted Vallas, now 97, but was delayed by disputes with San Diego County, which owns McClellan-Palomar Airport in Carlsbad.

For years California Pacific would announce it was close to offering service, then go quiet.


On Thursday morning, it was time for the inaugural flight. Yet mechanical problems delayed the launch. With little fanfare, the first flight left Thursday night.

Shortly after 6 p.m., the airline’s Embraer ERJ-135 twin jet left Carlsbad and pierced the sky on its way to San Jose.

“There’s a feeling of getting the weight lifted off our shoulders,” said Ryan DiVita, the airline’s director of sales and marketing. “Now, it is down to making everything as solid as possible. We’re feeling good.”

California Pacific is starting with flights to San Jose and Reno, and it plans to add Las Vegas and Phoenix later in the month. Its fleet is made up of four 50-seat Embraer jets.

The concept behind the airline is that people in northern San Diego County could take plane trips without having to drive roughly an hour to San Diego International Airport. California Pacific is the only commercial carrier offering service at the Carlsbad airport.

The carrier is a long-held dream of Vallas, a serial entrepreneur from the area who made his fortune in a motley career spanning golf course and resort projects around the world, running a regional airline and working on aircraft cabin interiors.

One-way fares on California Pacific typically range from $99 to $149. According to its website, a round-trip ticket between Carlsbad and Reno, leaving Friday and returning Monday, would cost about $378. The airline allows two checked bags without a fee, matching a policy by Southwest, the largest carrier in California by traffic.

California Pacific acquired its current fleet and operating certificate in May, when it bought Aerodynamics Inc. for an undisclosed price. Aerodynamics, based in Georgia, operates federally subsidized Essential Air Service routes from Denver to Pierre and Watertown, S.D. — a financial backstop that could help support California Pacific in the short run. The company has about 100 employees, up from 50 in August.

“It’s a smart idea to try to build air service out of Carlsbad, because there’s been growth north of the city center,” said Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst with Atmosphere Research Group. But, he added, “they don’t have an easy road ahead of them.”

Many people who travel frequently for work are deeply tied to a particular airline, due to company travel policies and a strong affinity for frequent flier programs, Harteveldt said. “The business traveler has to be wooed away from incumbent providers,” he said. Although Southwest won’t be flying its Boeing 737s into Carlsbad, it could make life difficult for the newbie by offering fare cuts, additional service and other enticements aimed at travelers in San Diego and Orange County to the north.

Bloomberg was used in compiling this report.

Molnar writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.