Santa Barbara Airport, by far the region’s busiest facility, is about to embark on a new era, relying more heavily on low-cost airlines to boost traffic.
Beginning on Aug. 16, Sun Country, a Minneapolis-based carrier owned by Apollo Global Management, will begin flights to its home hub in Minnesota on a seasonal, two-day-a-week schedule with flights on Thursday and Sunday. The service uses Boeing 737 jets and will continue through December.
A week later this month, Denver-based Frontier Airlines will resume flights from the Central Coast to the Mile High City on a Tuesday-Thursday-Sunday schedule that will presumably go through the winter.
Frontier, which uses Airbus 320 aircraft, flew in and out of Santa Barbara for several years but suspended service in 2015 when it went to its ultra-low fare model as it came under new ownership by Indigo Partners.
While the new services may strike a responsive chord with Denver Broncos and Minnesota Vikings fans who live on the Central Coast, the new flights are a cautious hedge by two discount carriers owned by large private equity concerns.
Sun Country and Frontier are very different from incumbents United Airlines and American Airlines because they don’t have daily flights that connect to global route systems, frequent traveler programs that tend to hook business flyers, or the loyalty that Alaska Airlines has engendered in its customers on the West Coast.
But it’s hard to argue with Frontier’s fares as low as $49 to Denver plus fees for an assigned seat or second carry-on.
Sun Country is less of a differentiator on price as its fares are higher and its schedule ends in December.
But both airlines don’t use the cramped regional jets that punish travelers on routes like the nearly 1,000-mile flight to Denver on United Express.
Instead, they use larger main-line narrow body jets like the A320 and Boeing 737; Frontier has some of the widest seats in the airline business.
And the upstarts are not going to make money by luring a handful of United flyers to occasionally hop on a cheap flight to Denver.
If my reading of the strategy is correct, Frontier and Sun Country are counting on being able to expand the pie by using low fares and digital marketing to reach leisure flyers from beyond Santa Barbara who might otherwise trek to Burbank or LAX in search of cheap flights on Southwest and other discount carriers — if travelers are willing to work with the various schedule quirks.
It helps to remember that more than one million people live within a 90-minute drive to the Santa Barbara Airport — an area that spans from Westlake Village to San Luis Obispo — and that Burbank and LAX are getting pretty close to capacity, especially given the horror show at LAX now that a major construction project is under way.
Betting on new service on the Central Coast has been a winner for United, which launched United Express service from Denver to San Luis Obispo, and quickly doubled down by offering a second daily flight.
That has to be encouraging to Frontier and Sun Country as they test the waters for expansion on the Central Coast.
If they have success in expanding the market for Santa Barbara Airport, it is possible that their cautious bets on the market will be followed by more flights on Frontier or year-round service to Minneapolis.
United has been responding, too. It has an extra 50-seat jet flying daily to Denver, at least for the summer, and recent prices on the Denver-Santa Barbara route were slightly less expensive than flights from Burbank or LAX.
Airlines are benefiting from relatively stable fuel prices, more efficient aircraft and a strong economy that’s boosting travel for both business and leisure customers.
We’ll check in later this year and see how well Santa Barbara Airport’s experiment with low cost carriers is taking off.
• Contact Editor Henry Dubroff at [email protected]