CARLSBAD, CALIFORNIA – November 1, 2018, one year ago today, marked the first flight for California Pacific Airlines, a small regional airline based in Carlsbad, CA. It is a small town just an hour north of San Diego, known for being the home to many technology companies, as well as Legoland USA.
This airline was in the works for over eight years prior to launch, but it didn’t even last two months, with their Carlsbad operation shutting down on December 21. But what caused them to shut down so soon?
From Idea to Reality
The idea for California Pacific Airlines was conceived in the 1980s by founder and CEO, Ted Vallas after San Diego based Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA) merged with US Air. Vallas, a Northern San Diego County-based entrepreneur made his fortune in the leisure industry, founding golf courses and resorts all over the world.
Notably, he founded Air Resorts in 1975. Throughout the 1980s, and early 1990s, Air Resorts flew various Convair aircraft on charter flights from Southern California. The airline eventually merged with Air L.A. which shut down just five years later.
California Pacific Airlines was founded in 2009. Initially, the airline had a start date in 2010. Original destinations were to be San Jose (SJC), Oakland, Sacramento, Las Vegas, and Los Cabos, Mexico using Embraer ERJ-170s.
FAA Part 121 certification took longer than expected, and the first phase was passed in early 2012.
At that point, the airline created a ticket counter at Carlsbad’s McClellan-Palomar Airport (CLD).
They also leased an ERJ-170 to begin operations. Initially, it was registered as N176EC but was later changed to N760CP, paying homage to both the airline and the telephone area code of Carlsbad. Although operations seemed to be on the horizon, they later fell through.
The FAA didn’t award the airline with the second phase of certification, citing maintenance and safety procedure issues. The airline subleased its sole aircraft to Honeywell to use for instrument testing in Arizona.
The ERJ-170 was later returned to the leasing organization and is now flying with South African Airways’s subsidiary, Airlink.
California Pacific continued to struggle with certification and fleet issues up until 2017 when Vallas and company made a large announcement that would guarantee them a path to the skies.
On November 18, 2017, California Pacific Airlines announced that it had purchased Aerodynamics Inc., a Georgia-based regional charter airline.
This airline had four ERJ-145s, but more importantly, it had a full Part 121 operating certificate, something that California Pacific had waited a long time for.
On September 1, 2018, Aerodynamics Inc. officially rebranded as California Pacific Airlines for Essential Air Service (EAS) from Denver to Watertown and Pierre, South Dakota.
It was later announced that flights from Carlsbad would begin on November 1—12x weekly to SJC and 4x weekly to Reno. Weekly flights to Las Vegas and Phoenix-Mesa/Gateway (AZA) would begin in mid-November.
Once Aerodynamic rebranded as California Pacific, many issues started to arise. Before the launch of the Carlsbad operation in November, all four aircraft were dedicated to the EAS service from Denver.
Two of the aircraft (N359AD and N459AD) were painted in a basic all-white scheme and were used for the Denver routes.
N259JQ was painted in a hybrid scheme with California Pacific titles and a blue tail. N286SK was the only aircraft that wore the full California Pacific scheme. Both of these aircraft were destined for flights from Carlsbad. I
n October, N286SK was struck in Watertown by a backhoe while taxiing for departure. This left just one aircraft for the West Coast operation.
The initial flight of the airline came on November 1st. It was scheduled to be flight 4A 101 from CLD to SJC. With N286SK in Pierre, N259JQ would have the honours of flying the first flight.
However, the ferry flight to CLD was cancelled the previous day due to electrical issues, thus cancelling the airline’s first four flights.
The first flight ended up being 4A 107 on the evening of November 1st with the true inaugural festivities being rescheduled to November 2nd. This didn’t mark the end of the maintenance issues.
With only one aircraft used for the entire Carlsbad operation, many flights were cancelled due to the maintenance-plagued N259JQ. Approximately one-third of the flights in November was cancelled.
Additionally, both Denver based aircraft experienced many delays and cancellations as well. In mid-December, N286SK rejoined the fleet, but only flew for one week.
On December 22nd, the airline announced that it would shut down its Carlsbad operation, citing issues relating to the pilot shortage. In mid-January, the EAS service was cut as well. The dream for Ted Vallas was dead just 51 days after it came to life.
A Day in the Life of California Pacific
On December 19, 2018, I had the chance to closely examine the daily operation of California Pacific Airlines. I had a chance to fly on almost every flight that the airline offered that day, except for both the first and last flights.
The day began at 7:30 AM at the check-in desk at Terminal A in San Jose. There was no line at the California Pacific check-in desk. It did take a few moments to print all six boarding passes, but there wasn’t much of an issue.
Security took approximately 15 minutes, but it was then a quick walk to Gate 17, one of the common-use gates of the airport. Shortly after, N286SK arrived from CLD. This was the only week that N286SK would operate flights out of Carlsbad.
It was a quick boarding process and soon we were on our way as flight 102, backing out of the gate nine minutes early. The flight would be operated by Captain Kirk, First Officer Brent, and Flight Attendant Melissa, who would operate half of the day’s flights.
On-board, service included a choice of non-alcoholic beverage and either a pack of Chex Mix or M&M cookies, which was the same for all flights. After a descent over the Los Angeles area and Camp Pendleton, we touched down on runway 24 and taxied to the small terminal.
I had a quick 30-minute connection, but McClellan-Palomar Airport is not large. After deplaning, all passengers were ushered directly out of security, meaning that I’d have to re-clear security. Although there was only one checkpoint, there was only one other person going through, so it went quickly.
It was only a few minutes before we boarded N286SK for the next destination, Reno as flight 103. This would be the longest leg of the day, with 1:20 in the air.
We taxied out to runway 24 for a carrier-style departure. CLD’s runway is only 4,900 ft., so a static takeoff is necessary with 20 degrees of flaps. We flew over the airspace for Edwards AFB and then followed the Sierra Nevada up to RNO.
After a very quick stop on the ground, it was back to CLD as flight 104, following the same flight path as before.
Once back in CLD, both the TSA and gate agents recognized me from earlier in the day. There wasn’t a flight besides the ones I was on, and not many other passengers either.
After another brief security check, it was time for a quick flight to Phoenix Mesa-Gateway Airport, the secondary airport in the area. This flight brought on the second crew of the day: Captain Brian, First Officer Mark, and Flight Attendant Camilla.
Flight 105 to AZA was quickly underway with just under an hour in the air. This flight provided great views of the Salton Sea and the Sonoran desert.
Allegiant is the dominant carrier at AZA, but there was lots of room for N286SK at the terminal.
All passengers were ready to board flight 106 back to CLD when we touched down, so the departure ended up being over 20 minutes before it was scheduled. After another long taxi to runway 30C, we were quickly in the air and on our way to a sunset arrival in CLD.
After one last trip through security, we were soon on our way back to SJC on flight 107. After landing in SJC, I had a nice chat with all the crew as they prepared to fly back to CLD, the first California Pacific Airlines flight that I wouldn’t be on in almost 12 hours.
It was truly an amazing day with the airline. From the flight crew to the ground staff, it was evident that this airline was a family. Everyone was extremely kind and welcoming and they truly cared about the airline and its passengers.
With all my flights, there was a large elephant in the room—the passenger loads. I was a non-revenue passenger on these flights, so I don’t count myself in these statistics.
The flights averaged a load factor of 12.7%. That’s 38 paying passengers out of a total of 300 possible in six flights. The most-full flight had 10 others on board and the least-full flight had just two others with me.
Most passengers on-board were Carlsbad residents who couldn’t stop raving about the airline and not having to fly out of San Diego’s main airport, Lindbergh Field.
However, they said that there was very little, if any, marketing about the new service within the San Diego area. They were shocked that so few people knew that the airline had started up.
One traveller who worked with the Chamber of Commerce mentioned that they were not aware that the flights had finally begun.
After the airline shutdown, many revelations came to light. The initial cause of the shutdown was said to be due to the pilot shortage.
First Officer Mark was scheduled to begin his upgrade to Captain in early January and mentioned that they were very desperate for First Officers.
In late January, a maintenance worker filed a lawsuit saying that the airline violated a directive to keep an aircraft grounded. Instead, they continued to fly, but the aircraft in question, N259JQ, was grounded a few days later and flown off for heavier maintenance.
Company employees were furloughed for over two months after the flight stoppage and never received unpaid wages.
The mayors of both Pierre and Watertown also came forward saying that California Pacific did not pay landing and gate fees to their airports.
Additionally, they also cited the airline for cancelling many of the flights due to maintenance reasons, something that never happened with Aerodynamics Inc. operating the route.
Since March, Ted Vallas has been looking for next investors for what is left of the airline. Although Vallas put in over $15 million, much more capital will be required.
All four aircraft have been repossessed with two of those aircraft now flying for JetSuiteX.
In May, the airline was close to being acquired by an equity firm in Los Angeles with Robert Nisi, the former Director of the Board of Directors for Virgin America, taking over the CEO position from Ted Vallas.
There is even talk about transitioning the airline to be a Part 135 carrier with ERJ-135s, similar to both JetSuiteX and Contour Airlines.
California Pacific Airlines was in the works for a very long time but never lived up to its hype. It truly had the potential to be a great regional airline throughout the West Coast.
Ted Vallas, at the age of 98, saw his dream through and started the airline, even though it didn’t end up the way it was supposed to.
Hopefully, the airline will see a reemergence in the new future with better fleet and marketing strategies. If California Pacific flies again, I will be the first to book my ticket!