An American Airlines jetliner makes its way toward the gate at the Santa Barbara Airport.
An American Airlines jetliner makes its way toward the gate at the Santa Barbara Airport. Credit: Tom Bolton / Noozhawk photo

As a boy growing up in Ventura County, Chris Hastert was always fascinated with airplanes, an interest that led to a long career in aviation.

Airport Director Chris Hastert stands amid light aircraft at the Santa Barbara Airport.
Airport Director Chris Hastert stands amid light aircraft at the Santa Barbara Airport. Credit: Tom Bolton / Noozhawk photo

After a stint in military aviation right out of high school, Hastert held several jobs in airport management in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, most recently at the Santa Maria Public Airport.

Today, the 50-year-old Hastert is the airport director for the City of Santa Barbara, appointed to the position last fall from a field of 42 applicants.

In a wide-ranging interview with Noozhawk, Hastert shared his priorities for the new job, as well as the philosophy that guides him in his work.

Topics included the direction of airport development and facilities, noise issues and relations with the surrounding community, and general aviation.

Hastert’s career trajectory began with positions at the Oxnard and Camarillo airports in Ventura County, where he served as deputy airport director.

“I was very fortunate that there are very good aviation facilities in Ventura County, where I was raised,” he said.

Seeing a lack of upward mobility, Hastert made the leap to the Santa Maria Public Airport, where he spent 14 years.

Taking the Santa Barbara position “was a logical next step up as far as operations and activity,” Hastert said.

The Santa Maria Airport is designated a “non-hub commercial service” airport by the Federal Aviation Administration. Despite its spacious terminal and large free parking lot, it has virtually no commercial air service.

The Santa Barbara Airport, in contrast, is a “small hub” airport served by multiple commercial airlines.

Hastert holds a private pilot’s license, and he owns and flies a single-engine Piper Cherokee 235.

Short term, Hastert told Noozhawk, he’s been focused on understanding the community and their concerns and their desires.

An American Airlines jetliner makes its way toward the gate at the Santa Barbara Airport.
An American Airlines jetliner makes its way toward the gate at the Santa Barbara Airport. Credit: Tom Bolton / Noozhawk photo

“One of the things that’s a big change from Santa Maria to Santa Barbara is the tourism aspect,” he said. “Obviously, that drives a lot in this economy. But it’s also not what some of the residents are most focused on. It’s all about balance.”

Hastert said he’s also working to establish and improve relations with the cities of Goleta and Santa Barbara, as well as all the residents affected by airport operations.

“It’s really about establishing relationships with the community where we are open, transparent and trusted as a government agency,” he said. 

Hastert recently sat down with Noozhawk for an interview. The following are some of the highlights.

What’s on the Horizon for Commercial Air Service?

The Santa Barbara Airport experienced record commercial air traffic in 2022, with a tally of more than 1.2 million passengers.

That easily eclipsed the previous record — just shy of 1 million passengers — recorded in 2019, the year before the COVID-19 pandemic began and airline traffic cratered.

Much of that 20%-plus surge in passenger counts during the past couple of years is attributable to the entry of Southwest Airlines into the Santa Barbara market in April 2021, joining the other local carriers: United, American and Alaska airlines.

A Southwest Airlines 737 at the gate at the Santa Barbara Airport.
A Southwest Airlines 737 at the gate at the Santa Barbara Airport. Southwest contributed heavily to passenger traffic growth at the Santa Barbara Airport in the past two years. Credit: Tom Bolton / Noozhawk photo

Hastert said he does not expect that level of growth to continue in the short run.

“I would say, probably for the next year, it’ll be very stable other than minor changes to our existing schedule,” Hastert said. “Beyond that, it’s unknown. … Anything that’s going to happen, I would say, we’re looking more long term than short term.”

Throughout the airline industry, leisure travel came back more quickly than business travel, Hastert said, and Santa Barbara saw that impact as a popular tourist destination.

“We jumped back to pre-pandemic levels fairly quickly,” he noted.

An obvious question regards the possibility of another carrier coming into the market, with Delta Airlines being mentioned frequently.

Before the pandemic, Delta had been offering three daily nonstop flights between Santa Barbara and Salt Lake City, one of its hubs, but discontinued that service in July 2020.

“In the realm of things that potentially could happen here in Santa Barbara, obviously Delta coming back to a major hub like Salt Lake City is fairly high on the list,” Hastert said.

“I can assure you that the airline industry is having a lot of issues, and so we are not in negotiations for them coming back, although at some point I see that probably happening.”

Other smaller carriers also are possible new arrivals, including Avelo Airlines, which tends to serve mostly smaller airports, and Breeze Airways, which serves mainly East Coast and Midwest communities.

“There are plenty of different opportunities that are out there for airlines that want to serve a market like Santa Barbara,” Hastert said, “but nothing coming in the very short term.”

He pointed out that airlines, when they make an announcement, typically are planning six to eight months from that point, “and we’re not near making any kind of announcement right now.”

What’s to Be Done About Airport Noise Issues

When it comes to airports, especially those with commercial air traffic, noise inevitably is an issue, and one that for years has been a challenge for the Santa Barbara Airport.

In the past, many people in the community have contended that the airport leadership seemed insufficiently concerned and responsive to noise complaints.

“I think the one thing you will find is that I am sympathetic to that issue,” Hastert said. “And, yes, we are an airport here, and, yes, airplanes do make noise, and they’re going to be flying over communities at some point.”

The most persistent complaints are related to the early morning departures from the airport.

United Airlines has a daily departure to Denver shortly after 5 a.m., with a flight to San Francisco leaving at 6 a.m. and another to Los Angeles at 6:45 a.m.

American’s morning flight to Dallas-Fort Worth takes off at about 5:30 a.m., with its Phoenix flight departing around 6:30 a.m.

“It’s very unfortunate,” Hastert said, “and I do sympathize with them, because that time has shifted earlier than it historically had been.”

That change, Hastert said, is related to how the airlines manage their hub airports, especially with regards to flights to the East Coast.

“It’s not a Santa Barbara issue, it’s a West Coast issue,” he said. “Every airport on the West Coast now has these earlier flights. And the fact people are willing to get up that early to make it to the East Coast enables the airlines to continue them.

“And so obviously when we meet with the airlines, we continue to pass that message that the earlier flights are not well-liked by our community.”

Legally, local airports do not have any control over arrival and departure times; that’s the purview of the Federal Aviation Administration.

Beyond the early hour of these takeoff there is the question of the specific routes they fly upon departure. Small changes can take them directly over residential neighborhoods — or not.

“We’re currently analyzing the most frequently used departures, and where they’re going, and looking at that routing,” Hastert said. “I can’t say whether there’s something that can be improved there or not — I think there probably is — but we’re looking at their current routing and seeing if we can’t encourage the airlines to take different routing for those early morning departures.”

The Santa Barbara Airport faces a somewhat unique challenge when it comes to noise, as it is surrounded on three side by residential areas.

“But we do have the ocean just to the south of us,” Hastert said, “and the quicker we can get out over the water, as opposed to over people’s houses, the better.

“Believe it or not, the majority of the airlines do follow the approaches that we want them to do. Obviously, when they don’t, it’s very noticeable, and that’s what people see and hear.”

Technology may help improve the situation, and Hastert noted that the airport is studying the potential for using instrument departures to that end.

An Alaska Airlines jetliner at the gate at the Santa Barbara Airport.
An Alaska Airlines jetliner at the gate at the Santa Barbara Airport. Credit: Tom Bolton / Noozhawk photo

“That’s the current big focus,” he said, “looking at those instrument departures for those early morning flights, and seeing if there isn’t something we can do to, at a minimum, get them to fly a route that impacts less people.”

Three of the four airlines currently are using proprietary instrument approaches, Hastert said, pointing to Alaska Airlines as being on the “cutting edge as far as trying to work with our approaches here.”

He declined to name the fourth airline that hasn’t yet gotten with the program.

“All of these approaches are aircraft specific, so even if the airline has an approach published, there are certain aircraft that can and can’t fly that approach,” Hastert said. “That has to do with technology and what equipment is in the cockpit.

“So as fleets are replaced with newer aircraft things get better, and then they get better as far as engine noise and all that.”

Of course, commercial aircraft are only part of the problem; there also are corporate and private planes flying in and out of the airport on a regular basis.

The airport is working with locally-based aircraft, as well as the local flight schools and fixed-base operators to emphasize the need to be mindful of the noise impacts of their operations.

He also pointed out that the FAA is developing a “charted visual approach” that does come in over the water, which could lead to improvements.

“We’re making a lot of effort,” Hastert contended. “Again, ultimately it’s not going to eliminate the problem, but if we can make something better, that’s our focus.

“I can say it’s a lot of work, and a lot of effort that goes into not a huge amount of change, but for the residents, even a little bit of change goes a long way.”

Click here for data on airport noise complaints.

Airport Facilities Expected to Expand

Plans call for the airport to eventually expand the passenger terminal to the south, adding new gates and jetways.

It’s a move that would be based on meeting current and future demand, Hastert said, but is not intended to lure more commercial traffic.

“I think there’s a lot of focus that if you expand or add to a terminal, that it’s going to bring in more flights, it’s going increase activity,” Hastert said. “But the airport actually works a little bit differently than that. The airlines don’t just fly because you have a nice facility or a big terminal.”

Passengers make their way down a jetway at the Santa Barbara Airport.
Passengers make their way down a jetway at the Santa Barbara Airport. Credit: Tom Bolton / Noozhawk photo

Proof of that is Hastert’s previous posting at the Santa Maria Public Airport, which has a spacious terminal, free parking and ample runways, but virtually no commercial air service.

“As all of the communities that are here continue to grow either business or tourism, that creates more demand,” Hastert said. “So if you go to the terminal today, you will find very crowded situations, especially with the pandemic and other things where you are trying to keep people further apart from each other.

“It’s not ideal as we sit today. So the plan is to do some additions to the terminal that provide better services for the customers, including more concessions. It’s difficult to get something to eat or sit down and enjoy a beverage at the current terminal.”

The airport currently is involved with preliminary design work on the terminal expansion, with construction not expected until at least 2026, Hastert said, with completion likely taking a couple years.

Similarly, airport officials are studying how to provide more passenger parking to alleviate problems that occur at peak periods such as major holiday weekends.

Passengers waiting for their flights at the Santa Barbara Airport.
Passengers waiting for their flights at the Santa Barbara Airport. Credit: Tom Bolton / Noozhawk photo

The airport has three parking areas: a short-term lot directly across from the terminal, a long-term lot to the immediate northeast, and an economy lot at Hollister Avenue and Frederick Lopez Road just west of Fairview Avenue.

“During Thanksgiving, we were at capacity,” Hastert noted. “We had employees not parking in the economy lot just to make room for passengers.”

Within the next six months, the airport expects to add some parking on the south side of the terminal, Hastert said, but the ultimate plan is to build a parking structure at that location.

“Parking structures are very expensive and difficult to put in, so that probably won’t happen at the same time as the terminal,” he said, “and it will be based again on the demand and what we see.”

The goal would be to provide more long-term parking closer to the terminal.

Passengers head up the escalators to the gate area at the Santa Barbara Airport.
Passengers head up the escalators to the gate area at the Santa Barbara Airport. Credit: Tom Bolton / Noozhawk photo

Finally, airport officials are looking for short-term ways to reduce crowding at the TSA security check point, which can become overwhelmed during peak travel periods.

The checkpoint’s location at the top of the escalators and stairs presents problems when there are heavy passenger counts

Airport Master Plan Update Is Underway

Much of the public interest in the airport is on commercial air service and related facilities, such as the terminal and parking.

But the long-term plans also involve other facilities along the north side of the airfield, Hastert said, noting that the airport has embarked on updating its master plan.

That process is expected to take about a year, and starts with taking a full inventory of the airport and all its facilities.

Similarly, the airport is developing a forecast for future demand, and plans a public meeting on those issues in the next 30 to 60 days.

“This airport is a beautiful airport, it has a lot of great history,” Hastert said. “There hasn’t been a lot of investment into the airport for maintaining and modernizing some of the facilities. And so, my goal would be to really look at all of the facilities, and work with some of our partners like the FBOs (fixed-base operators) that handle all the private charter-type operations.”

The structures on the north side of the airport include aging World War II-era bungalows as well as older hangars and other buildings that date back several decades.

“These facilities are on short-term leases,” Hastert said. “They’re in aging facilities that don’t meet their needs. And so, using our master plan, we’re looking at that moving forward so that there can be a lot of private investment into the airport.

“It’s not all about the airport spending money to improve facilities. We have partners here who are eager to continue working in Santa Barbara, and build upon their business, and we need to work with them to make that happen.”

In the next five to 10 years, Hastert said, he sees a lot of private investment — primarily from the FBOs, but also some general aviation partners.

“What this community really deserves is just a world-class facility,” he said.

Two badly rundown, historic General Western Aero hangars at the northeast corner of the Santa Barbara Airport.
Two badly rundown, historic General Western Aero hangars at the northeast corner of the Santa Barbara Airport. Credit: Tom Bolton / Noozhawk photo

Future of Historic Hangars

At the northwest corner of the airfield sit two historic structures: the General Western Aero Hangars.

The vintage hangars were build in 1931, and represent the earliest days of the airport.

Early on, they supported aircraft manufacturing and commercial operations, then later were taken over for military uses, before eventually sliding into disuse.

“Limited documentation available between the 1950s and 1980s suggests the hangars were less used for aviation purposes and more for storage,” according to the airport’s website. “It appears that minimal maintenance was performed on the hangars over this period.”

Various studies have been conducted over the years to determine what to do with these historic buildings, but in the meantime, they have continued to deteriorate.

“It’s a very challenging facility, in that it is so far gone right now that I don’t know what that answer is,” Hastert said.

Another study is underway, Hastert said, and is due out soon.

“There are a number of different options,” he said. “There is historical significance — that’s what the main public comment is about. And so, absolute best case, could you renovate those? Keep them there, and maybe turn them into a visitors center or museum?

“Worst case is you’re taking something apart and documenting it, and maybe putting it up somewhere else, or maybe not. But all of that we haven’t made any decisions on, and we recognize the historical value to the community.

“We will be looking for the best path forward on a facility that looks like it could fall down at any moment.”

In closing, Hastert said he wants to hear from the community about the future of the airport.

“If you had some concerns about the airport, but sure to let me know about them,” he said. “Voice your concerns, and just know that we have people that are open ears and wanting to be transparent in what we do, and try to build those relationships.

“We are sympathetic to everyone around us, and what’s going on, and we aren’t working out of a silo, and just ignoring everyone around us.”

Click here to contact the airport administration.

Light-haired man with mustache smiling

Tom Bolton, Noozhawk Executive Editor

Noozhawk executive editor Tom Bolton can be reached at