The recent announcement that Allegiant Air will add a weekly flight to Honolulu from the Santa Maria Public Airport, and expanded service to Portland from the Santa Barbara Airport, suggest a boon in local air travel.
But airport and travel professionals say bankruptcies and other turbulence with the airline industry may have the opposite effect.
Allegiant Air announced last week that it will begin weekly flights in November between Honolulu and several West Coast cities, including Santa Maria. It is a unique service that bundles air, car and hotel rental and caters to smaller airports.
An Allegiant official said its flights to Las Vegas from Santa Maria are very popular and she expected the Honolulu flight to do well. The service begins Nov. 17 with introductory fares as low as $199 each way.
“From what I’ve heard, it has only been a day, but it has been received very well by the community, and people have already let me know they booked tickets,” said Chris Hastert, Santa Maria Airport general manager.
Santa Maria’s main objective has been keeping prices competitive, he added.
“The airline industry is in a difficult time right now,” said Hastert, adding that Allegiant focuses on small airports to keep costs down, with the exception of Las Vegas. “With the American bankruptcy, we’re not seeing much expansion in smaller and larger airports.
“There’s not much expansion route wise for major carriers,” he added. “American scaled back quite a bit in Santa Barbara and cut itself entirely out of San Luis Obispo. It may not have as much to do with market’s ability to fill planes than the shrinking fleet size.”
One of the reasons the Santa Barbara Airport didn’t pursue an Allegiant flight to Honolulu was because the 757 aircraft requires a runway longer than 7,000 feet, said Hazel Johns, SBA assistant director. Santa Maria recently expanded its runway to 8,000 feet, while Santa Barbara’s is about 6,000 feet.
“Having an option like the Allegiant in November will be positive for the Central Coast,” she said.
Alaska will begin offering a seasonal flight to Portland from June 4 to Aug. 25, and SBA and the Goleta Valley Chamber of Commerce are pushing for a direct flight to San Jose.
United offered a flight to San Jose from Santa Barbara until about 10 years ago, when SkyWest filled the void. But SkyWest cut the flight in February 2010 because of low occupancy, according to Johns.
“The surveys indicate that if the service were available, they would use it,” she said. “One question the airline had asked was if passengers would prepay or subsidize the companies to make sure airlines wouldn’t lose money, and the participants were not interested in that. But there’s still a good possibility it will work.”
While United recently expanded its Santa Barbara routes to Denver, many small airports have been losing flights, including Oxnard, which lost three United flights late last year. Santa Barbara previously supported flights to Salt Lake City, Dallas and Houston.
“Honestly, the state of the airline industry is a tough read,” Johns said. “This summer, we’re anticipating a 5-percent increase in occupancy, but there are less seats available than in 2007.”
The airlines have cut back flights such as the 50-seat regional jets partly due to rising fuel prices, she added. While the Santa Barbara Airport’s load factors for each flight have been higher — around 75 percent to 80 percent — total passengers have dropped 4.5 percent from 2010 to 2011, to 721,551 passengers from 755,734.
“There’s been a hesitancy in the community with the economy and what’s happening next,” Johns said. “Once we complete our construction project for our new terminal (around July), it will benefit.”
Charles de L’Arbe of the Santa Barbara Travel Bureau noted that there is more demand for flights then there are seats.
“I think airlines have made a determined effort to cut down on available seats and reduce the frequency of flights,” he said.
In terms of flight demand, de L’Arbe’s clients appreciate the nonstop Seattle flight. But there is still demand for flights to San Jose, the Midwest and Texas, he said.
“When SkyWest dropped the service to San Jose two years ago, it was mind-boggling to me,” he said.
Despite the industry’s uncertainty, Hastert is hopeful that Santa Maria and the Central Coast will book more commercial flights as the economy turns around.
“We think there is a lot of potential here for additional service, especially to Denver,” he said.