Supervisors weigh expansion plans for Sonoma County airport

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Sonoma County’s airport is busier than ever, with daily flights ferrying hundreds of thousands of passengers annually to destinations up and down the West Coast.

But that popularity, officials say, sometimes comes at the expense of passenger satisfaction. On the busiest days, finding a place to park is a challenge and the airport’s terminal feels stiflingly crowded.

“With the growth we’ve had from Alaska (Airlines) we’re starting to reach capacity,” airport manager Jon Stout said.

Stout went before the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday to provide an overview of airport operations and to outline options aimed at easing overcrowded conditions.

One proposal, backed by Stout and county transportation officials, would address short-term concerns by significantly increasing the number of long-term parking spaces at the airport by the end of the year, and also increase capacity inside the lone commercial terminal by 2017.

The cost of the proposed expansion — estimated between $10 million and $14 million — would be covered through long-term loans, with money in the county’s general fund acting as collateral.

Under that scenario, terminal and parking capacity would continue to expand in future years depending on projected airport growth.

Supervisor David Rabbitt, an architect, raised concerns whether the piecemeal approach would wind up costing the county in terms of aesthetics.

“If I had my druthers, at least for kicks, I would rather see what the ideal scenario would be and price that out and take it as far as we can,” he said. “Let’s make the terminal something we want in Sonoma County.”

Supervisor Shirlee Zane supported that view, saying “we sometimes build too cheap and we don’t build for the future.”

She and Supervisor Susan Gorin expressed desires that the airport incorporate clean power technologies, such as solar, and integrate with Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit, which is expected to launch passenger rail service later this year.

However, Stout presented the airport’s expansion as an urgent need given the increase in the number of flights and passengers.

Alaska Airlines has added two daily flights to the Sonoma County schedule since 2010, which is the last year the terminal was expanded. By this summer, a total of eight daily flights are expected to operate from the facility. That includes an Orange County leg expected to be added in March and a second flight to Seattle anticipated in June.

Stout said he has been speaking with officials from Allegiant Airlines about operating flights to Las Vegas and Mesa, Ariz., and to American Airlines about operating a flight to Phoenix. But he said neither airline has committed to those plans.

Airport officials also have been courting airlines to add service to Salt Lake City or Denver, which would open up destinations on the East Coast.

Stout said Alaska has expressed interest in adding a flight to Hawaii in 2017. The Sonoma County Airport expanded its main runway in 2014 to 6,000 feet, which could accommodate a Boeing 737 needed to shuttle passengers to island destinations.

Already, the airport is setting new records annually for traffic. The facility last year served 263,142 passengers, a 10 percent increase from the previous year. Officials expect ridership this year to reach 300,000 passengers, a climb of 14 percent.

Stout said on five days last year, long-term parking filled up and passengers resorted to finding spots on side roads where parking normally isn’t allowed.

The airport has 424 long-term parking spaces. Under the short-term expansion proposal, that number would nearly double.

Likewise, the terminal would expand from its current 125-seat capacity to allow seating for 200. The plans also call for a two-lane security area, a larger baggage claim area and larger airline counter and queue areas. Officials said the terminal could handle 13 to 18 flights per day.

Supervisor James Gore, whose district includes the airport, asked Stout to address concerns that such expansion could drive growth, and whether current airport operations are generating complaints.

Stout said complaints dropped 30 percent in 2015 over the previous year, and that the airport’s master plan limits operations to a maximum of 21 daily departures.

“We’ll never be San Francisco,” Stout said.

County supervisors are expected to revisit the airport’s proposed expansion plans in the spring. On Tuesday, they voted unanimously to double the fees assessed to commercial airline operators for use of airport facilities. Officials said the move would bring the charges in line with industry standards.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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