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Sonoma County airport feels crush of holiday travel during another record-breaking year

Yearly passenger numbers

Passenger counts at Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport

2019 (Through Dec. 1): 443,815

2018: 440,644

2017: 397,787

2016: 339,191

2015: 263,142

The holiday rush this week at Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport was another symptom of the regional hub’s clear growing pains, reflecting its rising popularity among air travelers but also laying bare the need for a planned terminal expansion.

Through November, the airport had already set another record this year for passenger traffic, surpassing the 440,000 people who flew in and out last year. Once December’s numbers are added, airport leaders expect nearly 500,000 passengers will have passed through the facility in 2019.

But with the swelling passenger totals, waits in security and check-in lines have increased inside the 52-year-old building, which operates with one small baggage claim and a single queue for passenger screening.

On Christmas Eve, with tree ornaments hanging from the awning outside the terminal, and garland and festive wreaths on the walls inside, the airport’s quarters were cramped for holiday reunions and send-offs.

Just after noon, a flood of Alaska Airlines passengers burst through the arrival doors and filled the tiny baggage claim area. The crowding is standard for this time of year - one of the busiest periods for air travel around the nation - but is increasingly the norm at the regional airstrip, officials say.

“We’ve had delays, changes in flights - you name it, we’ve pretty much had it,” Adam Borovkoff, a Sonoma County Airport analyst, said on Tuesday. “But I think airlines see opportunity here. More flights can also mean more negatives, and the normal population of Sonoma County doesn’t necessarily like change. So we have kind of a Catch-22, right?”

The growth stems mostly from the addition of several major carriers and new routes serving key international hubs, including the launch this year of nonstop trips to Denver and seasonal flights to Dallas-Fort Worth.

Local air travel numbers held up despite the airport’s four-day closure in late October during the Kincade fire, leading to a loss of some 9,000 passengers.

The forecast 10% rise in passengers over last year burnishes the airport’s standing as one of the fastest growing in the nation, based on rate of passenger increase over the past four years, according to airport officials. It also extends a now nine-year streak of gains, stretching back to the sluggish years following the nation’s economic recession.

While the 15 daily flights don’t position Sonoma County to out-compete the region’s biggest hubs - San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose and Sacramento - many Wine Country travelers say the location makes it hard to beat.

“It’s just more convenient,” said Luis Gonzalez, a 32-year-old immigration attorney from San Diego who flew in to visit his family and hometown of Santa Rosa over Christmas. “Sometimes I’ll fly into SFO if the price is better, but if I book in advance it’s usually not a big difference.”

Jen Thomas, 42, of Sonoma, was a Christmas Eve travel casualty, and stood outside the airport Tuesday afternoon awaiting an Uber to take her back home. Her American Airlines’ nonstop flight to Phoenix-Sky Harbor International was delayed several hours, forcing her to miss a connection to Orlando, where her parents live. She decided to come back and try again on Christmas Day.

The false start was Thomas’ first subpar experience at the Sonoma County airport, she said, after quarterly trips to Los Angeles to see friends, as well as other travel over the past three years. She said she would continue with future bookings, citing the airport’s proximity to where she lives, allowing her to bypass hassles associated with heading out of town.

“Oh my God, it’s so small and easy and convenient,” Thomas said. “You don’t have to fight down into Oakland or San Francisco. You have to plan so much more time to get down there.

“The security line is starting to get a little bit bigger,” she added, “but still nothing like a major airport.”

To address its aging infrastructure, the airport will over the next year upgrade its tented passenger waiting and gate area.

It will add a second screening line after the security checkpoint is moved there, as well as install permanent bathrooms outside the current 15,000-square-foot terminal.

The project will also make way for a planned $25 million terminal expansion, increasing the airport’s welcome area by another 30,000 square feet. Construction is set to start next summer, with a targeted completion of the end of 2022.

In May, the airport received a $10 million competitive federal grant toward the expansion project and will wrap up the design process by the end of the year. Another $10 million in federal funds is expected in the next year or two to finish the project, which will add more rental-car counter space and a full-service restaurant beyond the future security screening area, as well as relocate the baggage claim to a less cramped location.

“The emphasis is basically on a better passenger experience and more modern - the equivalent of other similarly sized airports,” Borovkoff said. “The terminal is looking a little bit aged. The end result will be a lot better, where you enter into a terminal with a lot more open space, and it’s not as condensed and tight.”

New and expanded direct routes to and from Sonoma County may also be in store in 2020, with airport officials in talks with the current slate of carriers to get closer to the allowable 21 commercial departures, the daily cap imposed by the county under airport’s environmental clearance.

In addition, based on this year’s successes, forthcoming changes could include United Airlines moving to a larger capacity jet on its daily trip to Denver, and American Airlines transitioning its Dallas-Fort Worth flight to year-round service starting in April.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

Yearly passenger numbers

Passenger counts at Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport

2019 (Through Dec. 1): 443,815

2018: 440,644

2017: 397,787

2016: 339,191

2015: 263,142

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