Tri-county regional airports soar due to post-pandemic travel
San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport and Santa Barbara Airport are in the midst of hot years that are projected to meet or exceed previous record amounts of foot traffic.
Both airports are seeing more passengers now than they were prior to the pandemic, creating a new “normal” for the daily amount of people traveling at each airport.
Santa Barbara Airport’s daily norm is now roughly 2,000 passengers per day as opposed to 1,800 before the pandemic. San Luis Obispo Regional Airport has beat its monthly traffic every month besides June, but that can be attributed to a three-day closure for airport work.
“We are rocking and rolling over here,” said Courtney Pene, deputy director of planning and outreach at the San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport.
Each airport has had lower numbers, at least at times, this summer than it did last, but when stretched out across the whole year, 2023 is still a success.
“We’ve also just seen consistent travel starting in June of 2021,” said Santa Barbara Airport marketing supervisor Angi Daus. “We hadn’t seen the big, big dips and trenches like we used to see so it’s pretty consistent.”
So what has been the catalyst for this new era of heightened foot traffic for the Central Coast’s two largest commercial airports?
Neither is new in their area, but Pene and Daus both attribute some of the success to raised awareness about the airports within the community, as well as pent-up travel demand still gushing into each market.
Each airport has leaned heavily into keeping residents in their backyard from flying out of the large, international airports such as San Francisco International Airport and Los Angeles International Airport.
Santa Barbara Airport has done specific marketing campaigns in the region to keep locals using the airport, Daus said.
“Some of the success that we’ve attributed our recovery to is our marketing program that we have internally,” Daus said.
“We were very consistent, and we were very thoughtful and mindful about how we continued to remind the community that we were a public service to them during the pandemic.”
The higher yearly numbers at Santa Barbara Airport have been driven by leisure travel. The top reason arriving and departing passengers cited for their airport usage was to visit friends and family and the second was for vacation, according to preliminary data from a survey the airport is conducting with an outside agency.
San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport is also benefiting from people looking for ways to spend their leisure time. The region offers extensive outdoor activities, such as water sports and wine tasting, and that has been an attractive sell.
“The airports that are in more remote areas, but that offer a really big variety as far as outdoor activities are proving very successful since the pandemic,” Pene said of what she learned in a recent discussion she had with the FAA about regional airports.
The airports’ higher numbers across the year plug right into national trends in air travel. This year’s TSA numbers for daily passengers have beat last year’s numbers for every day except the Fourth of July, according to data from the TSA.
The future of Santa Barbara Airport and San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport looks busy too. The former is increasing its services in Denver, adding an additional direct flight in the fall while the latter will start a direct flight to Las Vegas on Dec. 15, a move that local business leaders believe will keep attracting new talent to the area.
For San Luis Obispo, the direct flight to Las Vegas is also key because one of the most popular reasons people gave for leaving the area to fly elsewhere was to drive to Santa Barbara Airport because it offers a direct flight to Las Vegas.
Soon San Luis Obispo County Airport will offer the same service which could mean even bigger numbers for the regional airport in the future.