Sonoma County airport grows, bucking a trend
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.”