A United Airlines jet headed for San Francisco prepares for takeoff from the Santa Barbara Airport.
A United Airlines jet headed for San Francisco prepares for takeoff from the Santa Barbara Airport. Commercial airline passenger counts are down about 95 percent as a result of the novel coronavirus pandemic. (Tom Bolton / Noozhawk photo)

As they have across the country, commercial airline passenger counts at the Santa Barbara Airport have plummeted as a result of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Traveler tallies are now down about 95 percent, according to Deanna Zachrisson, the airport’s business development manager.

“At this point, it’s just a handful of arrivals and departures each day,” Zachrisson told Noozhawk.

TSA agents are screening only 45 to 70 passengers a day, compared to a pre-pandemic average of about 2,600 per day.

The four major airlines serving Santa Barbara — American, United, Alaska and Delta — are maintaining required minimal service to Santa Barbara in order to qualify for bailout funds under the federal CARES Act, she said.

On a practical level, that means single flights each day between Santa Barbara and San Francisco and Denver (United), Dallas-Ft. Worth and Phoenix (American), Salt Lake City (Delta), and Seattle (Alaska).

Even with that limited schedule, some flights are being canceled due to lack of passengers, Zachrisson said, noting that on Tuesday, only 67 people were screened by TSA at the airport.

Passengers are urged to check frequently with their airlines to confirm their flights.

And the changes don’t stop there.

Alaska Airlines has modified its service between Santa Barbara and Seattle by combining it with flights to and from the San Luis Obispo Regional Airport.

So departing flights leave Santa Barbara, then stop in San Luis Obispo to pick up passengers before continuing to Seattle. Similarly, the returning flights stop in San Luis Obispo before arriving in Santa Barbara.

Alaska also is transitioning to smaller 80-seat Embraer 175 jets instead of the 737-800 aircraft it was using, which seat about 120 passengers.

Likewise, American Airlines will be shifting to 60- to 70-seat regional jets from its current larger Airbus 319 aircraft for its flights to and from Dallas-Ft. Worth.

Alaska has discontinued direct flights to Portland, Oregon, and United is no longer flying to and from LAX, Zachrisson said.

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

Asked who the passengers are who are still flying, Zachrisson said, “It’s pretty much minimal business travel, or people having to travel for family situations. It’s not leisure travel, it’s necessity travel.”

The dearth of passenger traffic has rippled through other airport operations as well.

The Costa Terraza Restaurant and Tapas Bar upstairs in the main terminal has been closed since April 1, and the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf generally is open for limited hours in the morning, Zachrisson said.

However, the gift shop/convenience store is remaining open as an “essential service,” she added.

Car-rental companies have seen their business at the airport pretty much stalled, Zachrisson said, currently at about 5-10 percent of normal.

The huge decline in passenger traffic means the airport is losing out on the facility fees each passenger pays when buying a ticket, which total into the millions of dollars each year.

Those funds are used by the airport to pay off its debt obligations, Zachrisson said, and without them, the airport could eventually be in default.

The airport expects to receive more than $9.5 million in federal bailout funds, which will help make up for those losses, she said.

One bright spot of the huge decline in passenger traffic is it is allowing the airport to catch up on some maintenance projects.

Plans are in the works to resurface the long-term parking lot, which in normal times is jammed full of vehicles, but was fairly empty this week.

“The logistics are a lot simpler when there aren’t many passengers,” Zachrisson said.

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.