Santa Maria’s relationship with United Airlines was set up for a breakup a year ago when the Chicago-based carrier stopped flying to Los Angeles and shifted its connecting flights to San Francisco.
The final blow came Aug. 1 when United announced a suspension of the SFO flights this fall. The Santa Maria-San Francisco service was neither convenient nor cheap — filling 50-seat regional jets versus smaller turbo props at premium prices was too much of a stretch.
But the Santa Maria Public Airport should not throw in the towel when it comes to air service. Its airfield can handle big jets and its population is bigger than the South Coast or South San Luis Obispo County.
It has the ability to offer free parking and it has a terminal that can easily handle more volume. It can and should aggressively recruit flights to popular tourist destinations like Las Vegas, Hawaii and perhaps Cabo San Lucas.
To plot a comeback it’s worth looking at the San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport. After a near-death experience when American sharply curtailed flights, the SLO County facility has slowly built its flights back to 10 departures per day – with United serving San Francisco and Los Angeles and American serving Phoenix. Alaska Air service to Seattle beginning later this year will add an 11th departure.
The success of San Luis Obispo underscores the role that business flyers play. SLO’s feed to larger markets from its tech companies and Cal Poly researchers is a major factor in its ability to lure more flights from major carriers.
So, too, is the county’s willingness to subsidize flights with marketing and other benefits, including a new terminal now under construction.
Here are three ideas for Santa Maria Public Airport:
• Team up with SLO and jointly market the two airports — with SLO leaning toward business flyers and Santa Maria for leisure flyers. It will be politically difficult to get the two airports to agree not to compete for certain flights but the benefits for the public could be huge.
• Be prepared to heavily subsidize flights with marketing benefits and landing fee reductions to get them off the ground. That’s just the way the world works — every small airport is in a race to attract flights and those with the deepest pockets often are much more competitive.
• Hang on for better equipment and more pilots. Today’s regional airlines are facing a huge pilot shortage as retirements among mainline crews are providing the best promotion opportunities in a decade. That means new flights are tough to add for regional carriers like SkyWest. A new generation of regional jets will provide more seats at cheaper cost.
Right now, airlines have all the advantages and small airports are negotiating from a weak position. But aviation is a cyclical business and Santa Maria’s growing population will make it a magnet for flights in the right conditions.
We’ll extend a heartfelt welcome to Erika Beck, the incoming president of CSU Channel Islands.
She takes over this month, moving her family to Camarillo from Nevada where she held a senior position at Nevada State University’s Henderson campus. She’s no stranger to California having spent time in the San Diego area.
But we will point out that on Aug. 4 the temperature was expected to be in the high 80s in Camarillo versus around 100 in Henderson. We hope you enjoy the cool air, the distinctive architecture and the talented folks at our state’s newest CSU campus.