After 10 years of effort, Carlsbad’s McClellan-Palomar Airport-based California Pacific Airlines finally took flight on November, 2018. It flew high for a whole month before being grounded, kicked out of the state of South Dakota and sued.
A long-time pursuit of Ted Vallas, a 97-year-old Rancho Santa Fe businessman with an ambitious plan to pick up the traditionally failing Carlsbad passenger traffic market, the airlines may never fly again.
Just before the start of the new year, California Pacific Airlines cancelled all of its California flights. The airline cited a lack of pilots and the general pilot shortage in the industry for the suspension of flights, but noted that it hoped to resume flights in February. This affects the airline’s Southern California operations, while its Essential Air Service (EAS) flight out of Denver will remain in operation.
California Pacific closed its counter at the Carlsbad airport earlier this month, and the company’s website says only that it has canceled all its flights.
Meanwhile, in the Mount Rushmore State
The only commercial air carrier to provide flights to South Dakota’s capital city had abruptly ceased its service.
South Dakota passengers were stranded, according to the Sioux Falls Argus Leader. Pierre Mayor Steve Harding announced on Sunday that the air carrier has ended its service to Pierre, and the city is now without air service indefinitely. California Pacific has a federal Essential Air Service contract to serve the Pierre and Watertown airports through July 2020.
While Pierre is without air service, residents of central South Dakota will have to travel to Rapid City or Sioux Falls to catch a flight, or to Minneapolis or Denver if they’re flying out of a major hub. Pierre officials are working with the DOT and South Dakota’s delegation in Washington, D.C., to resolve the air service issue as quickly as possible.
Residents flying in and out of Pierre aren’t the only ones affected by the end of California Pacific’s service to central and northeastern South Dakota. About 20 people working for the airline, Transportation Security Administration and in law enforcement at the Pierre airport have either been furloughed or reassigned as a result of the situation, according to Harding.
California Pacific also owes the city of Pierre $38,000 for rent, landing fees and passenger facility charges, according to the city.
Coincidentally, the lawsuit
Another explanation for grounding service may have been revealed in a lawsuit filed last week.
According to the lawsuit, Licensed FAA mechanic Tim Williams alleges that on November 25, 2018, California Pacific Airlines managers ignored his warning that a jet bound for San Jose from Palomar Airport in Carlsbad was unsafe to fly.
Instead of following his advice and grounding the jet, William’s lawsuit alleges that California Pacific allowed the plane to stay on schedule. Two days after the incident, Williams claimed the company fired him, in violation of state labor and whistleblower protection laws.
The lawsuit alleges the mechanic warned his superiors that one of CPA’s jets had issues with lubrication and, in his estimation, “is not safe to fly and is a serious flight risk,” KGTV said.
He brought his concerns forward despite feeling “immense pressure to remain quiet,” according to the lawsuit.
KGTV 10News said the worker was ignored and the plane remained in operation. Two days later, he says he was fired after having received an angry text from one of his superiors.
In his lawsuit, Williams claims his manager instead told him “not to worry about it” because the plane had been recently serviced.
But according to the lawsuit, Williams stood his ground, telling his boss “I am reminded of Alaska Flight 261 that crashed [off the California coast in January 2000 killing 88 passengers and crew] because it was not properly maintained.”
William’s lawsuit, filed in San Diego Superior Court, alleges that California Pacific executives kept the jet in service that day, allowing company pilots to fly it from Carlsbad to San Jose and back, and on dozens of more flights until December. The lawsuit includes a “Flight Activity History” for that plane, which confirms it was flown on and after November 25.
10News reached out to CPA’s founder, Ted Vallas, but has not received a response.
Meantime, an employee who did not want to be named told 10News that he has been furloughed indefinitely. He said he was supposed to get paid on January 15th, but has not received his check yet.
In an interview with 10News in early January, Vallas said they were hoping to resume flights in February.
But their booking website remains closed and the employee says they have received no word from managers if, or when, they would ever be coming back to work.
Up, up and away
California Pacific Airlines took off for the first time in November, 2018, with a flight to San Jose. It added flights for Reno, Sacramento, Las Vegas, and Phoenix/Mesa at the end of November.
The one-way fare aboard their four-passenger Embraer Phenom 100 jet was $499. The first passenger aboard the maiden flight was Dennis Kish of Rancho Santa Fe. He works in the Bay Area. “When I saw what they were offering I booked within five minutes,” said Kish.
Then, the airline purchase of ADI Aerodynamics. The small Georgia-based carrier had four leased Embraer 145s, and operated EAS routes between Denver and Pierre and Watertown, South Dakota. With its purchase, the airline finally received an FAA certificate and began its long-planned flights from Carlsbad in November 2018.
Vallas’ effort represented the fourth such airline to try doing business out of the North County airport since United Express pulled out in April of 2015. The other three have failed, never got off the ground, or suspended flights
The news of the suspension does not bode well for the relatively new airline. Both Pierre and Watertown have asked the Department of Transportation to reopen bidding for the recently awarded EAS routes.
With the pilot shortage unlikely to end in the near future, the outlook looks bleak for California Pacific. With a suspension of service in California and the threat of losing their EAS routes, the airline could be facing an uphill battle.