Merced fliers look for options

VISALIA -- The abrupt announcement Wednesday by Air Midwest that the airline will cease service to Visalia and Merced by the end of this month is leaving passengers wondering what will become of tickets they purchased in advance.

The Wichita-based airline is shutting down its operations in 16 cities in 10 states nationwide by the end of June, but in some western markets, including Visalia and Merced, the doors will close in just two weeks, on May 31.

The company, a subsidiary of Phoenix-based Mesa Air Group, flies between the two Valley cities and McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas under the USAirways Express banner.

"What am I going to do now?" asked Glen Harvey, who works at Merced College. Harvey bought a USAirways Express ticket for late June to fly to a California School Employees Association conference in Las Vegas. "This really complicates things. Am I going to get a refund? Are they going to help me book another flight?"

Air Midwest President Greg Stephens promised ticket holders for flights after the shutdown would be compensated.

"We will be issuing refunds," he said Thursday. "Our passengers will either be contacted by USAirways, or they can contact USAirways themselves."

Ticket buyers such as Harvey, who purchased his ticket through Priceline.com, a third-party ticket broker, will need to contact their ticket company directly for refund arrangements, Stephens added.

Stephens said he did not know how many would-be passengers have tickets for flights that won't even exist after May 31.

A USAirways Express agent at Visalia Municipal Airport said she hadn't received any calls yet from passengers asking about refunds. The agent, who said she was not authorized to answer questions, said only that she was instructed to refer passengers to USAirways' customer-service phone number.

Mike Conway, a spokesman for the city of Merced, said Merced Municipal Airport officials had fielded several calls by Thursday morning from worried ticket holders.

"It's just weird," said Harvey. "I just bought my ticket two days ago, and then this gets announced."

Visalia Municipal Airport manager Mario Cifuentez said it's unclear whether a replacement airline, Great Lakes Aviation, will be prepared to begin service immediately after Air Midwest shuts down.

Air Midwest receives a federal subsidy of $1.6 million a year to provide flights between Merced, Visalia and Las Vegas. But the airline last spring asked to be released from its contract, citing rising fuel prices.

Great Lakes, based in Cheyenne, Wyo., was selected in October by the U.S. Department of Transportation to replace Air Midwest in the two Valley cities.

"That was almost nine months ago, and they're still not in a position to take over," Stephens said.

"But we just cannot continue," he added. "I don't think anyone in the industry conceived last summer that fuel would hit $125 a barrel and continue to climb."

Representatives of Great Lakes Aviation could not be reached Thursday to comment.