Sonoma County airport grows, bucking a trend
July 16--For most of the past decade, the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport has enjoyed steady but incremental growth in the number of passengers served by one commercial airline.
But with the addition of more carriers this year the number jumped, prompting the airport to erect a new temporary waiting area and to make plans to build a larger terminal that could cost roughly $25 million.
Even as Allegiant Air last week confirmed it will end its weekly Santa Rosa-to-Las Vegas service later this month, the airport is about to gain its third new airline of the year. On Aug. 24, Sun Country Airlines will begin a weekly seasonal route from Minneapolis to Santa Rosa.
The comings and goings will result in a total of four airlines, three of which offer routes with daily year-round service.
The growth is rare among small U.S. airports, say airport officials and airline industry analysts.
"We definitely are not the norm," said airport manager Jon Stout. "We are the exception."
Indeed, a new federal report says that more than 50 communities have lost all scheduled air service since 2007, a loss many attribute to airline consolidations and a shortage of pilots in an era of growing international travel. Over the past decade, the number of scheduled air departures from smaller communities has declined 31 percent, according to the May report by the U.S. Secretary of Transportation's Working Group on Improving Air Service to Small Communities.
Robert Mann, an airline industry analyst based in Port Washington, New York, called it noteworthy that Sonoma County has gained not only flights but airlines.
"You've got a unique situation there," he said. "It's got to be one of the few smaller airports that is experiencing growth."
Mann credited the activity partly to the "charmed" status of the Bay Area, a place where the economy and personal incomes are growing and Wine Country has become a travel destination.
Airlines have shown interest in serving the county because they can draw outbound passengers from a coastal region with roughly 1 million residents north of San Francisco, said Stout, the airport manager. In terms of attracting inbound riders, he said, "it doesn't hurt being in a world-class wine region."
The airport has enjoyed 10 years of continuous air service from Alaska Airline's Horizon fleet. The airline offers daily service from the county to San Diego, Orange County, Los Angeles, Portland and Seattle.
For the first nine of those years, Alaska was the airport's sole carrier. But in May 2016, Allegiant kicked off twice-weekly service from here to both Las Vegas and the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport. That development was followed in February by American Airlines opening daily service from here to Phoenix's Sky Harbor International Airport. And in June, United Express began three daily flights from Santa Rosa to San Francisco International Airport, where travelers can make connections to United destinations around the world.
Airlines took interest in starting service here after the airport in 2014 completed a $55 million runway expansion, allowing larger aircraft to fly in and out. Airport and business officials long had sought the facility upgrade and the expanded air service for its benefits to commerce in general and the county's hospitality sector in particular.
"It ripples throughout the economy in a number of ways," said Ben Stone, executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board. Many travelers coming here stay in hotels, eat in restaurants, visit attractions, shop and make other purchases.
The airport's growth comes at a time of rising global demand for air transport. Boeing predicts the number of jets in service worldwide will double over the next 20 years to 45,240 and their operation will require the airlines to hire 617,000 new commercial airline pilots, including 112,000 in North America.
Parties disagree on how tough it will be to fill those positions.
In Sonoma County, the new carriers have had both successes and failures in attracting passenger business.
After starting service in February, American this month added a second daily flight to Phoenix. American spokesperson Nichelle Tait said in an email that the airline added the second flight on July 5 "to better serve the strong local demand."
Meanwhile, Allegiant this winter stopped its twice-weekly Santa Rosa-Phoenix route shortly before American started its service between the two communities. And last week it confirmed it would halt service on its sole remaining route between the county and Las Vegas.
"We decided to end service at STS because there was simply not enough demand in the area," Allegiant spokesperson Krysta Levy said in an email, referring to the airport by its three-letter code, "STS."
In May, the average Allegiant flight here was only 68 percent full, compared to 84 percent for American flights and 85 percent for Alaska flights.
Last year, two news organizations used federal aviation records to report that Allegiant had encountered a large number of mechanical problems resulting in emergency descents, unscheduled landings and aborted takeoffs. After the first stories appeared, some members of the public reported problems they had encountered with Allegiant, including canceled flights, aircraft mechanical problems and poor customer service.
Stout nonetheless credited Allegiant with prompting other carriers to take note of the county. Allegiant's arrival at the airport caused other airlines to investigate and see "that we were a viable market," he said.
With all the extra activity at the local airport, Stout estimated airline ridership this year will hit 425,000 passengers, a 25 percent increase from 2016.
Those who haven't visited the airport in the past year will notice the changes.
Out near the front of the terminal sits a new modular building -- similar to a large trailer for a construction site -- where passengers can check in for United and American flights.
All passengers still need to enter the terminal to reach the security check-in area and pass beyond it to two separate seating areas that lead to the departure gates.
The second seating area, known as Gate 2, is contained in a white, tentlike structure with flexible vinyl walls, a roof that arcs high overhead and an air conditioning system big enough to handle a future expansion. It opened to the public in June.
Passenger Margaret Van Der Bogart of Austin, Texas, wondered what she was in for when an Alaska staff member told her she should proceed out the terminal to the "circus tent."
"Excuse me?" Van Der Bogart replied.
The new area's 4,000-square-foot interior features stackable chairs and a vending machine with soda and bottled water. Beyond a side door in a fenced asphalt area sit two wheelchair-accessible, gray plastic portable restrooms as might be found at an outdoor festival or other community event.
Those who want to use a regular restroom can make their way to the other gate area.
Passengers also can spend time at the Sky Lounge Steakhouse and Sushi Bar. The restaurant features both indoor dining and an outdoor patio where on a recent afternoon a number of patrons ate beneath umbrellas and a covered overhang.
Airport staff said Gate 2 soon will feature new chairs with plug-in stations for charging cell phones and possibly a food kiosk. Also planned is an attached portable restroom trailer that must be custom built in order to meet both state and federal regulations.
By early next year, airport officials want to double the new waiting area to 8,000 square feet.
Expansion plans also call for adding a new parking lot of 450 spaces late this year.
"Our parking lots are filling up on a regular basis," said Stout.
The airport now has 490 spaces of long-term parking and another 90 in the short-term lot.
The airport is making plans to build a new, 28,000-square-foot terminal. The project could cost $24 million to $26 million, Stout said, and would require federal aid to complete. The building could be ready by 2020, he said.
For their part, airport patrons continue to voice appreciation for having local airline service.
Van Der Bogart's father, Bill Kinder of Cloverdale, said "there's no comparison" between flying out of Sonoma County versus other Bay Area airports. He said he especially likes the ease of taking an Alaska flight from here to Southern California to visit his son.
Kinder's friend, Tex Dickens of Cloverdale, said he found it advantageous last fall when he caught connecting Alaska flights for a trip from here to Spokane, Wash.
"We always fly out of here," Dickens said. "I will not drive to San Francisco."
Irvine resident Jazmine Adediran said flying into the county significantly cuts the time it takes to drive from an airport to her family's vacation home near Willits. Last week she was at the airport about to depart for Orange County with her husband, Adewale. and her 4-year-old daughter Naomi.
"And we love this small airport," Adediran said. "It's pretty convenient."