Ground transit takes off
As airlines cut back flights out of Santa Barbara Airport, the Santa Barbara Airbus has made up the ground.
Many travelers face less-than-convenient itineraries or premium ticket prices to fly between smaller cities, which have them exploring other options.
Major airlines have been scaling down as fuel prices spiked, flight occupancy dipped and carriers merged. This is especially true for smaller airports in the Tri-Counties. Both Frontier and American Eagle dropped out of the Santa Barbara Airport over the past year. And while flight occupancy has been in the 80- to 90-percent range, a pilot shortage has hamstrung the airlines, Airport Director Hazel Johns said.
“Airlines domestically have cut capacity by 20 percent nationwide,” she said. “The medium- and small-hub airports are taking brunt of that because the airlines are focused on making a profit, which they’re doing with bag and flight-change fees. They’re more focused on major hubs and international traffic.”
But airline cutbacks have translated to a boost in business for the Goleta-based Santa Barbara Airbus. The ground transportation company makes eight round trips to and from Los Angeles International Airport daily and provides charter services. The locally owned and operated organization has been growing at about a 10 percent rate over the past two years, founder and CEO Eric Onnen said.
“When American Eagle pulled out in April of last year, we saw a significant growth in volume for us,” he said. “It appears that small regional airports are going to be underserved compared to where they were. The cost of providing service is high and airlines have been able to consolidate. So it seems to be more of an ongoing situation.”
Onnen started the company out of a spare bedroom in his Goleta condo, running a hose over the fence to clean the 10-passenger vans and changing the oil in the street. His company has grown to 50 full-time employees and 25 WiFi-equipped, clean-diesel, company-owned buses. Santa Barbara Airbus has also partnered with Google Transit, which broadcasts its departure and arrival times to a global audience.
“We never understood [in 1983] that we could operate at the level we are today,” Onnen said. “It’s just a thrill.”
Onnen has also noticed an increase in the amount of travelers who drive down from Santa Maria, Lompoc and Solvang, park in the long-term lots and catch the bus.
“There’s a paradigm shift for environmentally conscious younger riders who want to travel without using a private car,” he said. “And the fact that you are free to work or rest is something valuable.”
Camarillo-based Roadrunner Shuttle also carries some of the load. The company started in 1991 solely catering to travelers looking to get to LAX and Burbank but has since expanded to public transportation and charter services, shuttling construction workers to and from work daily. While Roadrunner’s ridership to LAX and Burbank has remained rather constant, the company has grown from about $9 million in annual revenue in 2010 to around $24 million in 2014, Operations Manager Charles Sandlin said.
“The airline fluctuation has a minimal impact on us,” he said. “Our business to the Santa Barbara Airport has picked up about 15 percent but Burbank and LAX have been relatively flat. Our local presence at the Santa Barbara Airport, where we’ve had an office since 2008, has helped us combat the downturn in airline traffic.”
The Santa Monica-based startup Surf Air, which allows members to fly unlimited trips to and from the San Francisco area, Monterey, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and Carlsbad for fixed fees on a private, first-class Pilatus eight-seat aircraft, has also helped filled the void airline cutbacks left in Santa Barbara, Johns said.
“Surf Air has responded to that regional flight demand expressed by the business community and is doing very well out of Santa Barbara — it’s one of the strongest cities they have,” said Johns, adding that there are talks about adding a route from Santa Barbara Airport to Sacramento.
In the meantime, Johns will travel to Seattle in June to participate in the annual JumpStart Air Service Development Conference, where she will be making Santa Barbara’s case for more routes. She’ll be competing against 200 other airports.
“We’ll see if we can demonstrate that Santa Barbara has the market and airport to accommodate the business,” she said.