Allegiant Air to start service to Sonoma County from Las Vegas, Phoenix

Sonoma County has landed a second air carrier at its growing airport with the addition of Las Vegas-based Allegiant Air, which announced Tuesday it will begin offering service from Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport to the gambling mecca and to the Phoenix area starting in May.

The low-cost air carrier, which has come under federal scrutiny recently following several incidents, will begin flying two nonstop flights to McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas on May 19 and Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport on May 26.

The airline will utilize a single McDonnell Douglas MD-80 for the flights, which will be offered on Thursdays and Sundays to accommodate long-weekend travelers. The aircraft has seating for 166 passengers.

“It’s going to be great for people who want to vacation in Sonoma County and for us to get to spring training. I wish them nothing but success,” Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt said.

Allegiant becomes the second commercial airline to serve Sonoma County. Alaska Airlines started providing nonstop flights from Santa Rosa to Los Angeles, Seattle and Portland in 2007, filling a hole left by the 2001 departure of United Express. It added flights to Las Vegas in 2008, but ended the route in 2012 and replaced it with flights to San Diego. Next week, it will start daily service to John Wayne Airport in Orange County.

Bringing in a second carrier “makes us one or two stops away from almost anywhere in the world,” said Ben Stone, director of the county’s Economic Development Board.

He said the airport addition will boost tourism to Sonoma County and provide easier access for corporate clients who have business here.

Jon Stout, the airport’s manager, said adding Allegiant also could bolster longstanding efforts to attract another airline offering service to Salt Lake City or Denver, which would open up destinations on the East Coast.

“It will show we can support a second carrier,” he said.

But bringing in a budget carrier also comes at the risk of alienating other airlines, including American, which officials had hoped would begin offering service to Phoenix directly from Sonoma County. Stout said conversations with that airline are on hold.

“We’re not sure of the impact,” he said.

Allegiant’s Arizona flight is to a Mesa-based airport about 20 miles outside Phoenix. The metropolitan area’s largest air travel hub, Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, is about three miles outside Phoenix.

The new Allegiant service to Sonoma County was part of a large expansion announced this week for the carrier, which added three cities to its map and 22 new nonstop routes.

At a news conference inside the airport terminal, Stout said the deal with Allegiant culminates a decade of talks. He was joined at the podium by Lukas Johnson, vice president of network and pricing for the airline.

Johnson announced that the airline is offering promotional fares of $35 one-way to Las Vegas and $37 to Mesa as long as the travel is booked by March 14. He said one-way fares to Las Vegas following the promotion period will run from $50 to $60.

“It’s gonna be cheap,” he said.

Outside the airport, Desiree Packard of Windsor was excited to hear the news. She said she and her husband fly to Vegas about every six months.

“It will be huge,” she said.

However, the low fares can add up once baggage fees and other costs are factored in. Still, Johnson predicted the price to fly to Vegas or Mesa on Allegiant will be half what it costs to fly out of major Bay Area airports, not including the costs for parking and transportation to those travel hubs.

Stout said the parties are still hammering out the details of a three- to five-year agreement for Allegiant to operate out of the airport. He said the terms will not include financial penalties should the airline discontinue the flights, which are scheduled to operate year-round.

The airport will not charge the airline fees for the first 18 months, amounting to a subsidy for Allegiant of about $70,000. The airport also is planning to spend about $50,000 to market the new flights. But Stout estimated that parking revenue as a result of the new service will add about $10,000 monthly to airport coffers.

Allegiant is still awaiting approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to begin operating flights out of Sonoma County, according to Ian Gregor, a spokesman with the federal agency. He said the airline has to demonstrate that it can operate safely out of the airport.

Stout said Reno Air operated a smaller version of the MD-80 out of the airport in the 1980s. The airport expanded its main runway in 2014 to 6,000 feet to more easily accommodate larger aircraft.

Gregor forwarded a statement from the FAA stating the agency is looking into recent events involving Allegiant aircraft and personnel. The agency last summer investigated two high-profile incidents, a low-fuel landing in Fargo, N.D., and an aborted takeoff in Las Vegas.

In the Las Vegas incident, pilots reported that the nose wheel of the MD-83 aircraft lifted off of the runway prematurely during takeoff, prompting the captain to abort and return to the terminal.

The FAA determined that personnel with Allegiant’s maintenance provider, AAR Aircraft Services, missed some required maintenance steps and improperly documented the work. The federal agency determined that the corrective action the airline took, which included requiring a third inspector to review all work performed on flight controls, was sufficient to prevent future violations from occurring.

Gregor said the FAA is looking into more recent incidents involving the airline. He did not offer specifics.

“The FAA evaluates every event in the context of an airline’s overall operations to determine whether an event or series of events could indicate a pattern or trend that we need to address,” the statement he forwarded read.

An Allegiant spokeswoman responded to questions about the airline’s safety record with a written statement that said the airline was in near daily contact with FAA representatives.

“Each and every incident our operation experiences is investigated fully, often in conjunction with the FAA, to ensure that any possible steps to prevent repeat occurrences are taken - not only within our own operation, but throughout the industry,” the statement read.

Johnson said the airline is converting to planes manufactured by Airbus, and that one of the newer planes could be in use in Sonoma County within a year or so. The other two cities added to Allegiant’s flight map were Evansville, Ind., and Albuquerque, N.M.

Adding the carrier in Sonoma County puts more pressure on airport operations. Officials are seeking to expand those operations by significantly increasing the number of long-term parking spaces at the airport by the end of the year, and also increase capacity inside the lone commercial terminal by 2017.

Stout said the airport, in the meantime, will accommodate overflow in the passenger waiting area by installing a tent on the tarmac.

Last year, Alaska Airlines served 263,142 passengers at the Sonoma County airport, a 10 percent increase from the previous year. Officials expect ridership this year to reach 300,000 passengers, a climb of 14 percent.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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