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Airline selected for passenger air service in Merced

The U.S. Department of Transportation has chosen Great Lakes Aviation, an airline based in Cheyenne, Wyo., to provide passenger airline service for Visalia and Merced, officials said this morning.

Both cities have been without airline service since Air Midwest, flying under the US Airways Express brand, ceased flights between Las Vegas and the two Valley airports on May 31 as part of a nationwide shutdown of its operations.

Great Lakes was selected last October to replace Air Midwest under a subsidized federal contract, but was never able to get its service to Las Vegas into the air because of problems arranging for ground services at McCarran International Airport and the inability to mesh its ticketing services with those of United Airlines, its would-be partner in Las Vegas.

Visalia Municipal Airport Manager Mario Cifuentez said Great Lakes plans on starting service with flights to Ontario International Airport, in San Bernardino County, because the airline believes it can make arrangements there faster than it can at Las Vegas. Once the ground operations and computer issues are ironed out at Las Vegas, Cifuentez said, flights would eventually transition to McCarran International.

The latest federal order asks that Great Lakes begin service under the new contract no later than Sept. 8. The airline will receive a combined subsidy of up to $3.03 million a year for the Visalia and Merced service. Each city will receive two nonstop, round-trip flights each day aboard 19-seat Beechcraft 1900-D turboprop airplanes.