Entry to the passenger terminal at the Santa Barbara Airport.
Alaska Airlines announced Tuesday that it is adding daily flights between Santa Barbara and San Diego this fall. (Tom Bolton / Noozhawk photo)

In a sign of the gradual resurrection of commercial air travel from the Santa Barbara Airport, officials on Tuesday announced that Alaska Airlines is adding a daily flight to San Diego this fall.

The new flights had been planned earlier this year, but were postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused airline passenger traffic to crater.

Beginning Nov. 20, Alaska will fly 76-seat Embraer 175 jet aircraft between the two West Coast cities.

The hour-long flights will leave San Diego International Airport at 3:05 p.m., and depart Santa Barbara on the return trip at 4:45 p.m.

“For anyone in Santa Barbara, traveling to San Diego has meant a miserable six-to-eight hour drive through Los Angeles,” said Airport Director Henry Thompson. “But now, one of the best locations for both business and leisure is within reach.”

Alaska currently is offering a daily flight to and from Seattle, and daily shuttle flights to and from Portland via Santa Rosa.

Tuesday’s announcement comes as airline traffic at the Santa Barbara Airport has slowly recovered.

After shedding nearly 95% of its passenger traffic in the first couple months, the airport in recent weeks has seen passenger counts rise to about 25% of normal, according to Deanna Zachrisson, the airport’s business development manager.

This past Sunday, the airport tallied 447 passengers, while on the same Sunday in 2019, the count was 1,949 passengers.

“We’ve been slowly picking up speed…” Zachrisson told Noozhawk. “However, since (COVID-19) cases have ticked up, we’ve seen a bit of a plateau at about 400 passengers per day.”

In another piece of good news, United Airlines is adding a second daily flight to Denver beginning on Sept. 2, Zachrisson said, and will add morning flights to San Francisco.

Small general aviation aircraft parked at the Santa Barbara Airport.

Small general aviation aircraft parked at the Santa Barbara Airport. Airport officials report that general aviation activity has increased in recent months. (Tom Bolton / Noozhawk photo)

United has not indicated when it will resume flights from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles International Airport, which mainly serve as connectors to more-distant destinations.

“A lot of the reason United does LAX (from Santa Barbara) is they’re connecting through to other locations,” Zachrisson said. “The longer the flight is, the more difficult time the airlines have of selling them. People seem to be OK sitting on plane two or two-and-a-half hours, but not so much when it’s five or six hours.”

American Airlines, which was the Santa Barbara Airport’s best performer in June, continues to fly daily to Dallas-Fort Worth in Texas and Phoenix, Arizona.

Delta Airlines suspended its service between Santa Barbara and Salt Lake City on July 7, and has not indicated when those flights are likely to resume.

“It’s too early to get a commitment to come back to service,” Zachrisson said. “If the economy is not looking any better than now at the end of September, the suspension will probably go on longer.”

Contour Airlines, which had been flying small regional jets between Santa Barbara and Sacramento, Oakland and Las Vegas, has not indicated when it might return to the market.

“Contour is actively watching on a daily basis to see how traffic is doing,” Zachrisson said. “They are a small carrier, so they need to time their return to the market when there is demand.”

There has been an increase in general aviation activity, Zachrisson said, although she didn’t have any specific numbers.

“I think it’s probably similar to what we’re seeing on the freeways,” she said. “For a while, no one was out, but now there’s a lot of people out and about.”

Looking forward, Zachrisson said, the commercial airline situation seems to be stable, while the future remains uncertain.

“I think we’re all kind of watching to see if this latest uptick in COVID has any impact…” she said. “We’re just looking to see if there’s any sort of detrimental impact. It’s a slow growth. Last week grew another 6% increase.”

Zachrisson said there has been a high level of cooperation in the airport terminal among both passengers and employees for precautions associated with COVID-19 — mask wearing, social distancing, and hand sanitizing.

The exceptions, she said, have been a few passengers disembarking from aircraft from areas where mask use is not as prevalent, “but generally they transit quickly through the terminal and are gone.”

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.