Packed planes boost tourism spending in Sonoma County

Rick Risbrough lives 70 miles away in Martinez.

But when he travels with his wife to San Diego, the couple typically drives up for the night to their summer home in Monte Rio and flies out the next day from Santa Rosa.

'We go from here because it's so easy,' the retired community college teacher said last week, standing outside the passenger terminal at the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport.

Risbrough went to the airport Thursday to pick up his daughter's family, including a 2½-year-old grandson, who would soon be arriving on the daily flight from San Diego for a summer gathering along the Russian River. Having the relatives fly into Santa Rosa is 'much more convenient' than picking them up at airports in Oakland or San Francisco, he said.

The number of people flying commercially to and from the county keeps rising. The airport's passenger count jumped nearly 20 percent in July after Alaska Airlines added a second daily flight to Seattle for part of summer.

To date this year, ridership has increased 8.6 percent compared to the same period in 2014. And it's likely to stay strong this fall since Alaska, the airport's sole commercial carrier, starts a fourth flight to Los Angeles on Sunday (Aug. 23). That extra flight will continue six days a week in September and October.

'We're very pleased with the performance in Santa Rosa and … we are looking to grow our operations there,' said Ben Brookman, Alaska's manager of network planning. Customer support for the local air service ranks as 'one of the strongest that we have in our system.'

Last year a total of 238,000 passengers flew into or out of the airport. The facility has become an important part of the county's travel industry and a boost for local companies since Alaska started flights here in early 2007, according to business and tourism leaders.

Being able to fly directly to the county 'makes us a much more attractive destination' for tourists, said Jonathan Coe, president of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce. And business people benefit from being able to fly to other West Coast destinations — and would gain an even bigger advantage if the airport also could connect them with points east.

The county last year completed a $55 million runway expansion project that allows larger planes to land at the airport. Since then, airport officials have talked to various airlines about new service from Santa Rosa to Denver, Salt Lake City and Phoenix.

'Our strategy is: Try them all and hope for one,' said airport manager Jon Stout.

Besides those possible routes, Stout would like to bring back flights to Las Vegas and add an extra summer flight to San Diego. The flight to Las Vegas ended in 2012, the same year service began to San Diego.

The county airport experience certainly feels different than what occurs at the nation's larger air traffic venues.

No green-vested police or security officers are stationed outside the terminal to keep drivers moving. And passengers say you won't find long lines at baggage or security check-in.

Smaller airport advantages

'Coming through a smaller airport has its advantages,' said Richard Busby, who on Thursday arrived from Portland with a half-dozen compatriots to help with today's Santa Rosa Marathon.

Busby, the course director for the Portland Marathon, said his arrival at the airport a year ago provided 'a very grand introduction' to the ambiance of Wine Country.

'It gives you a relatively mellow vibe,' he said, standing across the room from the airport help desk, fashioned to resemble Lucy's psychiatry booth from Schulz's 'Peanuts' comic strip.

As well, airport boosters point out that not every air traveler can check in a case of wine for free, a perk in Santa Rosa for Alaska's Mileage Plan members.

For airport manager Stout, the good news this summer was that the 'passenger load' factor didn't drop when Alaska added another flight. In July the planes on average ran 83 percent full, unchanged from last year.

'They increased the number of seats available, but the market responded,' Stout said.

Alaska on Saturday ended the second Seattle flight, a day before starting the extra service to Los Angeles. The airline's service from Santa Rosa is currently limited to those two cities, plus Portland and San Diego.

'Reflection of good economy'

The growing ridership signals continued improvement for both businesses and the travel industry, said Ben Stone, executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board.

'It's a reflection of a good economy,' he said.

Indeed, growth also can be seen in the county's hotel businesses.

To date this year overall revenue has increased to $138.8 million, up 10.8 percent from a year earlier, according to travel research company STR. Revenues for the period have increased 85 percent since 2009, when the tourism industry was struggling through a global recession.

For July, STR reported the county's average hotel occupancy rate was 84.4 percent, a 1.3 percent increase from a year ago. The average daily room rate was $166.31, an increase of 7.6 percent.

In a report released last week, the county Economic Development Board published survey results about visitors who fly into the county airport. The year-long survey found that 16 percent of passengers came here on business and another 8 percent arrived specifically to attend conferences or trade shows.

Of the remainder, 36 percent were visiting family and friends, 15 percent were on vacation, 11 percent were taking a weekend getaway and 5 percent each were attending a wedding or a special event.

Both the airport and Alaska Airlines 'have been great partners in promoting Sonoma County,' said Tim Zahner, chief marketing officer for Sonoma County Tourism.

Together those entities bring in a small but significant share of the more than 7.5 million visitors who come to the county each year. Those visitors last year spent nearly $1.65 billion and helped support more than 19,000 workers in the county's tourism industry, according to Visit California.

More opportunities available

For the future, both business and travel leaders want to take advantage of the opportunities made possible by the expanded runways.

'We would really welcome an east-west route because that will really open us up to our markets,' Zahner said.

A top destination is Denver, which could serve as a connector to cities further east. Stout said he continues to talk to United Airlines about operating such a route.

But he also stays in contact with American Airlines about service to Phoenix. That airport could connect Santa Rosa with many southeastern U.S. cities and with Mexico.

The best outcome would be to obtain routes for both Denver and Phoenix, Stout said, because 'we believe those two hubs could complement each other.'

As well, Stout has spoken with Delta Airlines about service to Salt Lake City and with both Alaska and Allegiant Air about starting a route to Las Vegas.

Brookman, Alaska's network manager, declined to discuss specifics on the airline's plans to expand local service. But he said Alaska typically looks at expanding to locales where it already has had success, as well as where there would be demand for new service.

Stout said the airlines also take into account how well their current Bay Area flights are capturing the potential market of passengers traveling to and from the county. If the vast majority of county travelers already use an airline's existing service, its officials seem less interested in adding flights to and from Santa Rosa.

As well, airline officials consider the number of smaller aircraft in their fleets and weigh the best routes on which to place them. In such calculations, the officials have acknowledged they could make money in Santa Rosa, Stout said, but they add 'we can make more' somewhere else.

Even so, airport and business officials will keep making their case. A key piece of evidence, said Coe, is the 'outstanding passenger usage' that Alaska has recorded here over the years.

'I think we do have possibilities for getting additional air service,' Coe said, 'but it is not easy.'

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or On Twitter @rdigit

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