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United Airlines suspending service at Sonoma County airport as industry struggles mount during pandemic

United Airlines will temporarily halt all service at Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport by month’s end as a cost-saving move during the pandemic while the decline in commercial air travel continues, aiming to restore its Denver and San Francisco routes in the spring.

United suspended its daily nonstop flight between Denver and Santa Rosa in April, maintaining its San Francisco route since that time, but with less frequency. The Chicago-based airline has been offering the Bay Area connector — the shortest flight in its network — five days a week, and will see the final one depart Santa Rosa on Oct. 27, a United Airlines spokesman said.

The world’s third-largest airline arrived to Santa Rosa’s regional air hub in June 2017 with the San Francisco trip, later adding the direct flight to Denver in March 2019. United is targeting the return of both routes next March, said Jon Stout, Sonoma County airport manager.

“It’s understandable. It’s a very short flight. It’s not … rebounding like the other flights,” Stout said. “They need both markets to really help with flow. So we’re hopeful that they bring both back on March 27 like they say and the virus is under control by then.”

Neither Alaska Airlines nor American Airlines will make any changes to their schedule at Santa Rosa through at least the end of the year, he said. American has no plans to pull its nonstop daily flight to and from Dallas/Fort Worth — the airport’s furthest route east — a spokeswoman for the airline said.

United, and the nation’s other major air carriers, have been limping financially during the global shutdown as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Airline executives with American, Delta and United have all lobbied the federal government to provide a $25 billion bailout to avoid mass layoffs after previously receiving $25 billion in emergency aid, plus billions more in loans, through the CARES Act in March.

A new federal aid package has stalled in Washington, D.C., with the impasse forcing airlines to furlough tens of thousands of workers as revenue losses continue to mount. On Wednesday, United reported a third-quarter loss of $1.84 billion, which represented a 78% plunge year-over-year. That followed a second-quarter loss of $1.63 billion, or an 87% drop compared to 2019.

United’s share of furloughs totals 13,000 employees nationwide, including five part-time workers at Sonoma County airport earlier this month, according to a local customer service and ramp lead for United Ground Express, a subsidiary of the airline. Of the 16 workers who still have jobs, their weekly assignments will halt when the airline pauses service in Santa Rosa in two weeks.

“The word they used is standby. We’ll be active, but with zero hours,” said Penny Mabe, who joined United when the carrier launched service in Santa Rosa in summer 2017.

Meanwhile, passenger numbers at Sonoma County airport have maintained a steady rise, and reached their highest total since the stay-at-home order took effect in March. Nearly 17,200 passengers traveled through the airport in September, a 45% increase from August.

Last month’s passenger total, however, is still down 68% year-over-year, when almost 53,000 people passed through Santa Rosa. Those numbers, roughly a third of prior totals, will likely continue for several years with business travel largely diminished, said Michael Boyd, president of Boyd Group International, a Colorado-based aviation consultancy.

“It’s not a bright picture,” Boyd said. “Rest assured, it will come back, but we don’t know how long it’s going to be. We just have to hunker down, because the air transportation system for the foreseeable future is going to be smaller. It means airports like Santa Rosa will have to focus on a new future. All past data is just that — past data.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

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