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Santa Barbara Airport Girds for Dip In Passengers

Skyrocketing fuel costs are blamed for a decrease in daily flights but the terminal's construction project remains on track.

The Santa Barbara Airport expects the number of passengers it serves to drop this year, but the airport’s top official said a massive construction project to triple the size of the current terminal is still on track.

Largely because of skyrocketing fuel costs, the number of daily departures is expected to decline to 39 from 45, or by 15 percent, starting in the fall, airport Director Karen Ramsdell told the Santa Barbara City Council on Tuesday.

But she added that the decline in departures doesn’t necessarily mean the number of total passengers will drop in tandem, because not all of the departing planes are full. In fact, Ramsdell said, this year’s passenger count is on pace to surpass last year’s, although she doesn’t believe it will, because several airlines are set to start scaling back in the fall.

“We may see a flattening of our passenger count this year, or maybe a slight dip,” she said.

The industry as a whole, she added, also appears to be on the decline. But she said, historically, the industry has always rebounded, and the long-term business trend has always been upward.

“The airline industry is very sensitive to the conditions of the environment and world events,” Ramsdell said.

The Santa Barbara Airport’s biggest loss will be ExpressJet, which started as a regional partner to Continental Airlines but recently tried to strike out on its own. In November, ExpressJet arrived in Santa Barbara, launching popular direct-flight services to Sacramento and San Diego. Earlier this month, however, citing fuel costs, the company announced plans to shut down all of its nationwide standalone flights beginning Sept. 2. That will mean a loss of four daily flights from Santa Barbara.

Also lost will be two daily US Airways flights to Phoenix, one daily US Airways flight to Las Vegas and one American Eagle flight to Los Angeles, although that airline will be replacing its propeller planes with slightly larger regional jets.

Meanwhile, although construction on the new terminal is set to begin in the spring, airport customers can expect to see some big changes as early as this fall — particularly in the parking department.

That’s because construction crews will need to begin preparing for the $63 million project before they actually break ground.

Through the years, the current terminal has become crowded, due to a steady rise in passengers, as well as a pronounced increase in security equipment as mandated by the Homeland Security Department after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

According to the current plans, the new 60,000-square-foot terminal will triple the size of the current one, while at the same time preserving the historic, cylindrical façade, which was built in 1942. The proposed new terminal is slated to open in mid-2011, and will be located directly to the south of the current one, which will remain in use throughout the construction.

Among other things, the new two-story terminal will provide passengers with restaurants, restrooms and gift shops on the other side of the metal detectors.

“It will be more like a normal airport experience in terms of services,” Ramsdell said.

In addition, it will feature outdoor patios and a courtyard with a fountain.

Come late fall or early winter, in preparation for the construction, the short-term parking will be temporarily relocated to the west end of the current long-term parking lot. Part of the long-term parking will be moved to a lot across the street from the Elephant Bar & Restaurant on Firestone Road just off Hollister Avenue. The lot by the Elephant Bar currently serves as the overflow lot, and so now is open only when the long-term lot is full. When the parking changes begin, that lot by the Elephant Bar will be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The lot near the restaurant will continue to provide a free shuttle to the airport. The drop-off loop will also change temporarily into something more kidney-shaped, making the curves sharper, but increasing the total area of drop-off parking, Ramsdell said.

Although the airport is a city-owned facility, it is also a self-sufficient entity. However, like a parent co-signing for the loan of a young adult, the city has agreed to back the airport on the $38 million in bonds it is borrowing to complete the construction. This means that in the unlikely event the airport defaults on its payments, the city would step in and pay the lenders, Ramsdell said.

The co-sign option has enabled the airport to secure a better interest rate, she added.

Ramsdell said the airport isn’t in danger of defaulting. By way of context, she cited a 2003 financial study concluding the airport would have to lose a quarter of its passengers for the financial feasibility of the project to be at risk. Since that time, the airport’s annual number of passengers served has risen to about 856,000 in 2006 from about 753,000 in 2003 — although it did drop to 819,000 in 2007. Ramsdell said this is because some evening flights had to be canceled to allow for some nighttime construction. At any rate, the airport is in the process of updating the financial study, she said.

The council had little to say about Tuesday’s status report, although several council members reiterated their praise of the airport’s grand ambitions for sustainable development.

Among other things, the “green” designs will generate electricity by installing solar-panel canopies above the cars in the parking lot.

“It’s going to be the coolest airport around,” said Councilman Grant House.

Councilwoman Iya Falcone, however, did lament the loss of ExpressJet, saying she hopes the airport can find another airline to provide the direct service to Sacramento.

“I think they should all be regulated again,” she said, referring to the airline industry.

Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at [email protected]

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