Tri-county travel is trending upward as the region’s top two airports reported strong passenger counts for the first quarter of the calendar year.
Passenger traffic grew nearly 20 percent for the Santa Barbara Municipal Airport, which anticipates a return to pre-recession levels by the end of year, and 15 percent for the San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport, which has been developing underserved markets for the last few years.
Those numbers are also stretching into the beginning of the summer season with both airport directors saying they anticipate a strong year.
“We really continue to have one record-breaking period after another,” said SLO Airport Director Kevin Bumen. “But I think one thing to keep in mind is that as long as we’re growing the flight schedule . . . we’re going to continue to see growth.”
At both airports, the growth has come from new destinations and an increase in the frequency of direct flights to current destinations. With only so many ways to grow an airport, whether adding flights or bumping up existing flight services, offering travelers more options is important, Bumen said.
Both airports have added new destinations this year: Delta Air Lines will begin daily service from Santa Barbara to Salt Lake City on Aug. 13, and American Airlines began daily flights from SLO to Dallas on April 2.
“The constant growth, while incremental, is steady,” Bumen said, and based on April and May numbers the SLO Airport’s second quarter is projected to surpass the same time period last year.
Santa Barbara Airport is increasing its service to Dallas and adding a larger aircraft to that route because the flight has performed well, said Airport Director Henry Thompson. Contour Airlines, which began service to Las Vegas and Oakland last year, is also increasing flight frequencies to those destinations, and a third Denver flight will be added in October.
“We’re always kind of gauging what the market desires and what we can really pitch to the airlines,” Thompson said, adding that the key to offering new air service is making sure the seats are filled.
The airport will continue to pursue additional routes that are feasible, he said, especially further east. Attractive options are Chicago, Houston, San Diego and San Jose.
During the Great Recession in 2008, air travel took a hit with significant impact to smaller locations like Santa Barbara as carriers scaled back and consolidated flights in hubs like Los Angeles. The impact on the Santa Barbara Airport was significant, especially since it was in the process of building its new terminal, Thompson said.
“We’ve now recovered from that reduction in travels,” he said, and this year’s passengers are expected to total one million. “That’s pretty big for an airport of our size,” he added.
While the SLO Airport is smaller by far — last year’s total passenger count was nearly half a million — it’s still an aggressive player on the Central Coast. From an economic perspective, every flight seat drives 118 visitors in the regional market at a value of $82,000 per seat, said Bumen.
The airport’s economic impact on the county was recently estimated at $85.2 million, which was based only on quantifiable data, Bumen said. It included general aviation activity, but didn’t account for non-quantifiable impacts, such as increased home or business values or a company’s decision to open or move to SLO County.
That report also identified two new possible air service routes to Portland and San Diego, which would generate an estimated 21 direct full-time jobs and 23,967 new annual visitors to the county with an estimated economic impact of $10.5 million.
“I think there’s a lot of potential success in both those markets,” Bumen said, adding that the destinations were on the list of 2020 goals.
Another change on the horizon is the nearing completion of ACI Jet’s large hanger project with concrete poured and steal up. When it opens next year, the airport’s fixed base operations will move into the facility vacated by ACI, expand customer facing services, Bumen said.
The airport is also working on a parking study with a 15-year forecast to analyze the cost and scope of expanding parking, which has gotten quite full. It will also be completing a new Master Plan in 2020-2021 to guide future development over the next 20 years, assessing things like facilities, traffic, inventory and potential environmental issues.
Due to the increase in travel, the Santa Barbara Airport re-opened its long-term parking on Hollister Avenue and Lopez Road in Goleta to mitigate overflowing parking near the terminal. Thompson said that will likely remain open throughout the remainder of the year, and shuttle service to the terminal will continue.
Construction is winding down on the five industrial spaces the airport owns at 6100 Hollister Ave. Most of the buildings are tenanted with an anticipated July 1 move-in date, Thompson said, and tenants will be announced soon.
The airport is “all positives in developing budgets and projections” for the next fiscal year, he said, although staff are mindful about the potential impacts of an economic downturn.
• Contact Annabelle Blair at [email protected]