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The Checkered History of McClellan-Palomar Airport

California Pacific Airlines Embraer E145 arriving at McClellan-Palomar (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Joey Gerardi)

All airports have periods of growth and decline, but very few have such dramatic service changes, multiple times in a row.

That’s exactly what has happened at McClellan-Palomar Airport in Carlsbad, Calif., located roughly 30 miles north of San Diego. The airport has had four different carriers serve the airport over the past five years, all at different times.

This article highlights recent developments at the lesser known San Diego area airport, including some successes and downfalls.

United Express

United Express operated by SkyWest, flew up to seven daily flights onboard the 30-seat Embraer EMB-120 from Palomar to nearby Los Angeles.

The service began in 1998 until the retirement of the aircraft from the United fleet in 2015. SkyWest citied the end of service due to newer jet aircraft not being able to operate from the airfield’s relatively short 4,897-foot runway.

The final service of United Express from the southern California airport occurred on the evening of April 6, 2015.

The flight was to receive a traditional water cannon salute upon final departure, but due to the severe drought at the time this commemoration was scrapped. Instead, it was replaced by a fire truck escort to the runway for its final flight.

Ted Owen, CEO of the Carlsbad Chamber of Commerce at the time stated that He wouldn’t be surprised if another airline took United’s place, which proved to be false for the next two-plus years.

The departure of the carrier to this day marks the last time a major legacy carrier served the airport.

Cal Jet by Elite Airways

The next airline to fly scheduled service to Carlsbad wasn’t until fall 2017. On Aug. 16, 2017, Portland, Maine based Elite Airways announced plans to launch a California based airline at McClellan airport.

The new carrier was called “Cal Jet” and would operate using Bombardier CRJ700s from the Elite Airways fleet.

Cal Jet by Elite CRJ700 resting at McClellan-Palomar before a flight to Vegas in 2018 (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Joey Gerardi)

The airline planned service to Las Vegas to begin in Sept. 2017 with future service to follow to Oakland and Sacramento, Calif.; Reno, Nev.; and Phoenix.

The initial service to Las Vegas went off without a hitch and the flights operated successfully for roughly seven months. The carrier operated its final service to the airport on April 18, 2018.

The carrier cited the discontinuation of service due to aircraft usage issues and the need to focus on its east coast operations before embarking on something new.

Elite Airways also said they expect to resume full service to all the initially announced destinations in the near future, but no one has heard any word of resumption since the demise of the carrier in the spring of 2018.

California Pacific Airlines

Most people have heard of this airline. It was founded in 2009 by now 98-year-old San Diego entrepreneur Ted Vallas and struggled to get off the ground for almost a decade.

During the eight years before starting service, the airline subleased a single Embraer E-170 in 2011 in order to gain FAA certification and painted it in the California Pacific livery. The aircraft sat idle at the airport for six years.

Due to financial troubles, the carrier was forced to return its sole aircraft in 2017, once again making it unable to gain certification. The carrier purchased already established Denver based airline “ADI Aerodynamics” at the beginning of 2018.

The purchase of the Denver-based carrier transferred the former’s certificate to the SoCal based company and put it in their name, now giving them the eligibility to begin flights. The purchase also gave the carrier four Embraer E-145 jets to use for its new operations.

California Pacific Airlines Embraer E145 taxiing at McClellan-Palomar (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Joey Gerardi)

The carrier finally began flights on the evening of Nov. 1, 2018 to San Jose, Calif. and Reno, Nev. Flights to Las Vegas and Phoenix began on Nov. 15. The new airline operated from the airport for almost the next two months.

Just short of the carriers two month anniversary the airline abruptly ceased all flights from its California hub. The airline cited the cancellation of services “due to nationwide pilot shortages.”

In the days following the cessation of operations, the carrier announced plans to resume service in the near future, but nothing has been heard from the airline since then.

Taos Air

After the inauguration and cancellation of flights from a second carrier in less than two years, locals began to doubt that any airline would serve their airport again, but they were thankfully proven wrong.

Relatively young New Mexico-based carrier Taos Air announced on Nov. 20, 2019 that it would be adding Carlsbad to its list of destinations for its second winter season of flights.

The New Mexico based carrier has been operating to the airport successfully since December of 2019 on a thrice-weekly basis to Taos, N.M. using one of its two Dornier 328 jets.

The new service to the airport is great, but Taos Air is a winter season only operation. This means that come springtime, the airport will once again be without scheduled air service for an unknown period of time. 

Joey Gerardi


  • Joey Gerardi

    Joe has always been interested in planes, for as long as he can remember. He grew up in Central New York during the early 2000s when US Airways Express turboprops ruled the skies. Being from a non-aviation family made it harder for him to be around planes and would only spend about three hours a month at the airport. He was so excited when he could drive by himself and the first thing he did with the license was get ice cream and go plane spotting for the entire day. When he has the time (and money) he likes to take spotting trips to any location worth a visit. He’s currently enrolled at Western Michigan University earning a degree in Aviation Management and Operations.

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