Santa Barbara rolled out the red, yellow and blue balloons as Southwest Airlines made its Central Coast debut on April 12.
The Dallas, Texas-based airline’s brightly painted Boeing 737 aircraft arrived on time or even a few minutes early from Oakland and Denver to start what is expected to be a busy season for Santa Barbara Airport. The landing was greeted with the traditional salute for a new airline, a fire truck hosing down the aircraft.
“In one word, this is huge,” said Santa Barbara City Administrator Paul Casey, who was on hand for the first arrivals. “It marks the beginning of a turnaround in leisure travel,” which has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“On a scale of 1 to 10, this is a 20,” said Airport Manager Henry Thompson, who added that based on the seats available, Southwest has already surpassed United Airlines to become the biggest carrier on the Central Coast.
United, he said, has responded by adding additional fights on the Denver-Santa Barbara route, a popular destination for both business and leisure travelers.
Airport commissioner Dennis Houghton said he’d driven to Burbank — until now the nearest Southwest landing point — on April 11 to pick up his son who was traveling to the Central Coast. “I wish he waited one more day,” he said.
Although the initial flight was slightly over half full, the summer promises to be a busy season for Southwest as lockdowns ease and the state opens more fully on June 15, according to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s latest order.
For Thompson it has been a busy year, with Southwest inaugurating service, United and American announcing flights to Chicago and San Diego coming on line as a destination. Next target, he said, is San Jose, where restoring service dropped by United years ago will help technology startups meet with venture capitalists, researchers and engineers in the Silicon Valley.
It has also been a busy time for Southwest, with seven new cities coming on line in the next few months as the airline leverages its single-plane fleet, a rebound in domestic travel and the new Boeing 737 MAX aircraft. Much of that expansion is aimed at California.
“Fresno is up next,” said airline spokesman Brad Hawkins, who was in Santa Barbara for the day.