Upward travel trend continues at Sonoma County airport in spite of health warnings
The slow recovery of air travel took another step forward in November, when the Sonoma County airport enjoyed its busiest month since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March.
Although traveler counts were still less than half the levels recorded in 2019, new data shows that Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport continued to rebuild its traveler counts in November for the seventh consecutive month.
More than 17,700 passengers traveled in November through the airport, which recorded its third- and fourth-busiest single travel days during the pandemic — a sign that more residents had again become comfortable with flights despite warnings by public health officials that travel and holiday gatherings risk greater spread of COVID-19.
“I think it’s clear that travel at this time, especially nonessential travel for vacation purposes or holidays, is not a good idea,” said Dr. Sundari Mase, Sonoma County’s health officer. “With air travel, you’re trapped in a space with people you can’t really socially or physically distance from for long periods of time if you’re taking a cross-country trip. You’re going to and coming back from places that may have much higher rates of COVID than even in California, and we’re already seeing increasing rates.”
An estimated 830 passengers flew in and out of Sonoma County the Sunday following Thanksgiving, after a similar total occupied inbound and outbound flights on another Sunday earlier in the month. Those numbers are in addition to several other travel days around the holiday that approached similar totals at the regional air hub, before public health officials issued a stay-home order Dec. 12 to stem the spread of the virus.
“Any time people are going around other individuals and gathering in the context of travel, there’s increased risk of being around someone with COVID-19,” said Kate Pack, health program manager for the county’s epidemiology team. “We’re emphasizing that the risks have always been there, but now they are higher than they ever have been because of the higher case rates.”
Since March, the county has identified more than 330 cases of coronavirus related to travel, including 10 directly to gatherings over Thanksgiving. Roughly half the overall total are from out-of-state trips, which Pack said was likely an underestimate of the 17,444 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Sonoma County over the past nine-plus months.
The most common locations where people traveled outside California and contracted the disease were Las Vegas and Mexico, Pack said. Neither are destinations with direct flights from the local airport.
Passenger traffic at the Sonoma County airport plunged 96% in April as the pandemic sent shock waves through the economy and prompted many travelers to cancel trips. Since then it has slowly improved. By October, traveler counts were down 56% from 2019 levels. November passenger totals were down 54% from 2019 levels, the airport’s best performance since March.
The local uptick reflects national air travel volumes around Thanksgiving, which before this week reached their highest level since the arrival of the global health conundrum that devastated the nation’s commercial airline industry. Nearly 9.5 million passengers hopped flights across the United States during the 10-day period around the holiday, according to the Transportation Security Administration.
The growth in air travel has continued in December. In the five-day period starting last Friday, more than 5.1 million people passed through the nation’s airport security checkpoints, TSA reported. That is still down almost 60% from the same time last year, but it averages out to about a million passengers per day — roughly what the U.S. saw in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, when some Americans likewise disregarded warnings and ended up contributing to the national surge in virus cases.
Passenger totals for this week and the month of December were not yet available at Sonoma County airport.
To meet demand for travel to and from Sonoma County around Thanksgiving, Alaska Airlines and American Airlines each added a route to the local airport’s schedule, which between the two air carriers currently includes seven daily flights. The two additional flights, which for several days before and after the holiday brought the airport up to nine daily routes, likely had an impact on November’s passenger gains, Sonoma County Airport Manager Jon Stout said. That gave Alaska Airlines two daily flights to and from Los Angeles until Dec. 2, and American Airlines flew twice daily between Sonoma County and its hub in Phoenix through Nov. 30.
United Airlines, the airport’s other carrier, suspended local service due to financial pressures at the end of October, but plans to restore its nonstop routes to Denver and San Francisco at the end of March, Stout said.
AAA Northern California expects air travel to tumble nationally by 60% compared to last year over the 12-day period that includes the days before Christmas and the weekend after New Year’s Day. Overall travel, including by car, during the year-end holidays is estimated to drop by at least 29% due to the health concerns.
Mase said she hoped the county’s current stay-home order, which lasts through Jan. 9, will give people reason to “think twice” before going on any nonessential travel to wrap up 2020. Anyone who travels outside the Bay Area should immediately quarantine for at least 10 days, she said, scheduling a coronavirus test around the eighth day, and not make trips to grocery stores, pharmacies or other communal spaces until they have received negative test results.
The Sonoma County airport remains open to the traveling public, with no scheduling changes as a result of the stay-home order, Stout said. The week of Christmas and through New Year’s Day tends to be a busier period for people taking flights, though advanced ticket sales so far suggest people are choosing to stay put, he said.
“It’s the same protocols that we’ve been following. If they need to travel for essential reasons, masks are required,” Stout said. “If you have a fever, don’t travel. If you’re feeling sick, don’t travel. We don’t need someone with a fever in the terminal, even if they think it’s needed.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or email@example.com. On Twitter @kfixler.