An empty passenger waiting area on Wednesday at the Santa Barbara Airport.
An empty passenger waiting area on Wednesday at the Santa Barbara Airport. Airline passenger counts at the airport are slowly rising, but remain far below the record-setting level before the COVID-19 pandemic. (Tom Bolton / Noozhawk photo)

Airline passenger counts at the Santa Barbara Airport are slowly rising, but remain far below the record-setting level before the COVID-19 pandemic.

The end of the Memorial Day weekend on Monday saw 232 passengers board commercial aircraft for flights out of Santa Barbara, a nearly 10-fold increase from the 26 who flew out on April 20, which was the lowest day locally since the pandemic shut down most U.S. air travel.

“It’s ticked up for sure,” Deanna Zachrisson, the airport’s business development manager, told Noozhawk.

At this time of year, Santa Barbara normally would see 1,800 to 2,000 passengers a day, she said.

California remains under Gov. Gavin Newsom’s stay-at-home order, which allows only “essential” travel, and most people flying over the holiday weekend appeared to be visiting family, or traveling to second homes, Zachrisson said.

“It’s not discretionary travel,” she added.

While the passenger numbers are rising, they won’t be helped by Delta Airlines, which has received tentative approval from the U.S. Department of Transportation to suspend its daily flights between Santa Barbara and Salt Lake City, Utah.

Under the federal COVID-19 bailout it received through the CARES Act, Delta and other airlines were required to maintain minimal service at the airports they served.

But Delta was among 15 carriers that sought exemptions from that requirement, since it provides service from nearby airports such as LAX.

A Delta Airlines jetliner prepares for departure Wednesday at the Santa Barbara Airport.

A Delta Airlines jetliner prepares for departure Wednesday at the Santa Barbara Airport. Delta has received tentative approval from the U.S. Department of Transportation to suspend its daily flights from Santa Barbara to and from Salt Lake City, Utah, through September. (Tom Bolton / Noozhawk photo)

The DOT’s tentative order was issued on May 22, and the public has until 5 p.m. Thursday to file objections and comments on the decision.

The flight suspensions will be effective through the end of September.

Santa Barbara already has seen a reduction in commercial flight schedules.

Contour Airlines, which was flying small regional jets between Santa Barbara and Oakland, Sacramento, and Las Vegas, halted its local service at the end of March.

Alaska Airlines suspended its service to Portland, and is using smaller 80-seat Embraer 175 jets on its daily Seattle flights instead of 737-800 aircraft.

Alaska has been including a stop in San Luis Obispo on its Santa Barbara-Seattle flights, but will return to non-stop service on June 1.

Sign indicating arrivals and departures at Santa Barbara Airport.

The Santa Barbara Airport is experiencing only a handful of arrivals and departures each day due to the shutdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. (Tom Bolton / Noozhawk photo)

United Airlines discontinued its flights from Santa Barbara to LAX, but has maintained service to Denver and San Francisco.

Inside the airport terminal, the Costa Terraza Restaurant and Tapas Bar upstairs is back in business, with a limited menu and socially-distanced seating, Zachrisson said.

The gift shop/convenience store has remained open as an essential service, she added, and the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf is open as well.

Earlier this month, airport officials announced that face coverings would be required to enter the terminal and fly with any of the airlines serving the facility.

The airport also has increased social distancing requirements and cleaning, and is providing sanitizer throughout the terminal.

The airport’s long-term parking lot has been shut down since mid-April, and a much-needed resurfacing project is scheduled to get underway at the end of the month, Zachrisson said.

In the meantime, the short-term lot nearest the terminal has been open, with long-term rates being charged.

Santa Barbara Airport set a record for passenger traffic in 2019 with almost 1 million passengers, a 27.1 percent increase over 2018.

Part of that success was driven by Delta Airlines, which returned service to the airport in August 2019 after departing nearly a decade before.

Prior to the pandemic, Delta had been offering three daily flights between the two cities.

Noozhawk executive editor Tom Bolton can be reached at tbolton@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.