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City supports Advanced Air flight change to Hawthorne

Advanced Air — which provides commercial airline service from Merced Yosemite Regional Airport to Los Angeles and Las Vegas — is experiencing the heavy load of a post-covid economy marked by supply chain constraints and rising fuel and labor costs.

The airline started its local service a year ago, after it received approvals from the city and the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) as part of the Essential Air Service (EAS) program.

While passenger demand has slowly increased over the past year, airline officials say the numbers are well below the initial budget expectations provided by the DOT from the previous operator.

That’s why they appeared before the Merced City Council during Monday night’s meeting to ask leaders to sign off on a plan to switch their landing spot at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) to a more cost-efficient Hawthorne Airport (HHR) that’s about three miles away.

“This is not about profits, this is about sustainability,” said Barbara Hunt, the vice president of AA’s Business Operations. She added that if the airline is not able to make the move — subject to DOT approval — the service contract would probably go out to bid again with further budget considerations.

After some discussion, city leaders agreed to sign a letter of support. The vote was 5-2 with Council members Bertha Perez and Fue Xiong voting NO. Perez cited safety issues in her criticism of the move. She noted that Hawthorne Airport does not have TSA Security Checkpoints. Xiong was more concerned about AA holding up its end of the contract despite market shifts.

However, the argument for the Hawthorne option was a strong one. When the City Council first approved the EAS contract after a bidding process in 2021, Hawthorne was indeed the city’s first choice (by a majority vote) as the airline’s SoCal destination. In turn, Las Vegas was chosen to fulfill the EAS “large hub” requirement. But after review by the DOT, the LAX option was chosen.

Advanced Air also submitted a survey that showed 78.57% of  passengers using the current route prefer the Hawthorne Airport option.

“Our terminal brings you curbside with on-site rental car facility, passenger pickup, and Uber/Lyft steps from the plane,” says Levi Stockton, the company president. “Plus, no wait to get your luggage, no busy LAX airport traffic, and aircraft taxi time after landing is under five minutes to the terminal. It is truly a VIP experience at the same price. For travelers to Hawthorne who need to connect to LAX, we provide a shuttle at no cost from the Hawthorne Airport direct to the LAX terminal of your connection. The same option from LAX to Hawthorne is available for travelers flying into LAX.”

The airport is also a short two miles from the new SoFi Stadium, home of last year’s Super Bowl championship team the Los Angeles Rams and the Los Angeles Chargers.

Regarding safety, a company official told leaders that TSA-approved security measures are in place throughout the route from Hawthorne to Merced. It was noted that the airline has an excellent safety record with about 5,000 flights a year through similar connections around the Southwestern United States.

In other City Council news:

An attempt by Councilman Fue Xiong to extend public comment time during regular council meetings via longer voicemail recordings and read-aloud emails failed to get the support needed for approval.

It would have been a return to the days of COVID-19 when leaders temporarily allowed 3-minute voicemails and emails up to 300 words to be sent in by individual residents and heard live during council proceedings.

Xiong said his intention was to create “equitable representation” for those who could not attend the evening meetings held every first and third Monday of the month.

“We as elected leaders should be listening to our community members,” he said.

However, other council members pointed out that Xiong’s plan had other unintentional (and perhaps other intentional) consequences.

They recalled marathon meetings with hours-long public comment, along with repetitive commentary prompted by calls to action from community groups and activists aiming to sway or influence decisions on the dais.

“If we get 20, 3-minute voicemails, are we going to sit here and listen to them for an hour before we continue our meeting?” asked Councilman Shane Smith. “I really appreciate the spirit of this [proposal], but I feel like the Council has lost sight of whose meeting this is. This is our meeting that happens in public … I don’t want to lose the discussion among the seven of us, and the efficiency of moving the meeting forward so we can do the people’s business. We have all seen it. The voicemails on certain issues. There’s a lot of support, and it could be weaponized. And I don’t know if it adds to our discussion of the richness of our exploration of the issues. I’m just concerned that we are opening up another Pandora’s Box. … You know anybody can call us, email us, two weeks before a meeting. We all do lunches with people. It’s not like this [a scheduled meeting] is the only opportunity.”

Xiong replied: “Listening to the same message for an hour … it just goes to show that the people support whatever that message is, and the importance of hearing it out and understanding that that’s what everybody wants, rather than simply cutting it short and listening to a few voicemails, and hearing the other side with a few voicemails, whereas you are not really understanding the impact of the majority of the people.”

Smith added, “I have a concern with the cumulativeness of voicemails that are really easy to leave. … I don’t think it helps our discussion of the issues and decision-making. I can be OK with a three minute voicemail that gets played, but I have concerns about the lack of a ceiling. I’m concerned with the cumulativeness and duplicativeness, and I don’t know that we need to listen to the same message 20 times in an hour — and that’s something that will happen.”

At present, members of the audience can address leaders in person during council meetings during the public comment period. Normally, comment is limited to three minutes per person, especially if there are multiple people who get up to speak. To avoid extended repetitiveness, the mayor can also ask groups of people relaying the same message to appoint a designated speaker to get that message across. Voicemails can be sent in before the meeting and be read aloud, but they are limited to 1 minute. Emails sent to the City Clerk are distributed to council members, but not normally read aloud during meetings.

“Right now we’re really striking the right balance,” said Mayor Matt Serratto on Monday night. “None of this prevents access to us, nor the ability for people to communicate with us — which is necessary for us to do our jobs. All of us up here work very hard. All of us volunteer to do this for little money because we want to make an impact, because we want to serve the community.”

Interestingly, the discussion at one point turned to the idea that maybe council members need to be monetarily compensated for a full-time job so that they can keep up with the demands of the job, including interacting with the public.

“At some point, people will have to make decisions to start paying City Council members definitely a living wage that’s competitive,” said Councilman Jesse Ornelas. “Having the time to speak to residents if very important.”

Councilwoman Perez agreed: “We need to start looking at making the City Council a full-time job. … We are not doing the justice if we don’t have time to serve you. Our city is growing. … We have to make ourselves available. When we are working eight to ten hours a day just to provide ourselves a living, how are we going to serve you the community, and give you guys the time that is needed.”

Historically, a seat on the Merced City Council has been a volunteer position that includes a modest stipend. In 2020, voters approved a ballot measure to create a Citizens’ Stipend Setting Commission. Council members currently receive about $400 a month, with the mayor receiving an additional $100. Some city leaders in the past have declined to accept a stipend.

In the end, the City Council voted 4-3 against Councilman Xiong’s proposal to extend public comment through longer voicemails and read-aloud emails. Council members Ornelas and Perez joined Xiong in support of the plan that was denied by the majority.

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