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Sunday, March 24 , 2019, 10:51 am | Partly Cloudy 59º


Passenger Numbers Drop after Route, Plane Change at Santa Maria Airport

Officials point to rebound now that United Express is flying between Santa Maria and larger hub in San Francisco, after dropping Los Angeles flights

Passengers wait for luggage to be offloaded in the baggage claim area at the Santa Maria Public Airport terminal after arriving on a jet from San Francisco. Click to view larger
Passengers wait for luggage to be offloaded in the baggage claim area at the Santa Maria Public Airport terminal after arriving on a jet from San Francisco. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

The number of passengers flying to and from the Santa Maria Public Airport dropped after United Express switched its destinations and aircraft in the spring, but the rate is starting to climb again.

General manager Chris Hastert provided an update to the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce’s manufacturers forum last week.

United Express, operated locally by SkyWest Airlines, began flying regional jets instead of turboprop planes in May. As part of the change, the airline halted service between Santa Maria and Los Angeles and launched two daily round-trip flights between Santa Maria and San Francisco.

The load factor — how many passengers filled the planes’ seats — was 44  percent in May.

“That’s not something that’s sustainable,” said Hastert, who added that the airport has launched a marketing campaign to tout its many benefits.

“It’s slowly been going up,” he said, adding that the load factor rose to 62 percent in June and 69 percent in July.

For the first few weeks of August the number climbed to 74 percent.

“So you can see see it’s on the way back up,” he said, noting that the number needs to be closer to 80 percent.

By comparison, in May 2014 the number was about 62 percent full in the small turboprop planes.

“That was actually profitable for United,” Hastert said, explaining that the smaller planes, which are less expensive to operate, could sustain smaller load factors.

Airport officials expected the numbers to dip some due to the change in aircraft and destinations, he said.

One huge stumbling block is airfares, with Santa Maria’s often being significantly higher — sometimes double —  than those for flights at the Santa Barbara Airport and the San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport.

“Technically, they’re supposed to be matching Santa Barbara’s airfares right now so we continue to monitor that,” Hastert said.

United implemented the San Francisco destination, saying it offered more United connections and more United flights for passengers, Hastert said.

He noted it’s one question he is asked frequently.

SkyWest employees ferry cargo to a waiting plane at the Santa Maria Public Airport. Click to view larger
SkyWest employees ferry cargo to a waiting plane at the Santa Maria Public Airport. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

“We didn’t switch the flights from Los Angeles, United did,” he said.

Santa Maria airport officials repeatedly tout their site’s advantages over Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo, where people must pay for parking. It’s free at the Santa Maria airport.

Hastert also assured the audience that officials are still trying to get service to Denver, but United officials have told them that destination is not their focus right now.

The Colorado destination is popular for Santa Maria due to the number of military personnel and aerospace company workers in the North County.

Santa Maria officials also are courting flights to the Pacific Northwest, such as Portland or Seattle, with a $1.5 million incentive program aimed at attracting airlines of offer other destinations.

“SkyWest is our best bet right now,” he said, adding that Santa Maria officials plan to meet with the airline next month. “SkyWest now flies for just about every carrier out there.”

The talks will focus on service to Phoenix on American Airlines, to Seattle on Alaska Airlines and to Denver on United Airlines, he added.

Since Santa Maria’s airport is operated by a special district, it can offer incentives that a county-owned airport like San Luis Obispo’s, which also operates in the red and lacks reserves, can not provide, Hastert said.

“Because we’re a special district, we receive a portion of the property taxes,” he said. “We turn that around into incentives for the airline to provide better service for our constituents.”

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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