Commercial airliners parked at the Santa Barbara Airport terminal.
Commercial airliners parked at the Santa Barbara Airport terminal last year. The Santa Barbara and Santa Maria airports are reporting signficant declines in commercial air traffic due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Tom Bolton / Noozhawk photo)

Two Santa Barbara County airports are reporting significant declines in commercial air traffic due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with reduced flights, fewer car rentals and uncertainty surrounding expanded service. 

At the Santa Barbara Airport, many flights have been cancelled recently amid a plummeting number of passengers.

Officials encourage passengers to check with airlines regarding flight statuses due to the rapid changes.

“It’s kind of a fluid thing every day,” said Deanna Zachrisson, business development manager and media spokesperson. “Almost all destinations continue to be served but by fewer flights.”

One exception is that the Alaska Airlines flights between Santa Barbara and Seattle, an area hard-hit by the virus, have been halted, but the carrier’s flights to Portland, Oregon, have continued.

Contour Airlines initially planned to operate until March 29 until a lack of passengers prompted a decision to shut down earlier.

Other airlines have trimmed the flights as the number of passengers have dropped to approximately 300 a day, instead of the approximately 1,500 to 1,800.

Santa Maria Airport terminal.

Allegiant Air has has dropped one of its flights from Santa Maria to Las Vegas through at least April due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and planned new service from United Airlines will be delayed until the fall. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

“Everything is dramatically reduced compared to what it has looked like,” Zachrisson added.

Likewise, the Santa Maria Public Airport’s current passenger carrier, Allegiant Air, has dropped the Wednesday flight to Las Vegas through at least April, according to General Manager Chris Hastert. 

That flight accounts for one-third of the airport’s commercial service provided by Allegiant, which flies round-trip between the Central Coast and Las Vegas. One Allegiant flight on Fridays and one on Sundays continue to operate for now.

Like other airports, Santa Maria has seen fewer passengers. Last week, the Wednesday flight had just 25 passengers, he said. 

The cancellation may wind up being longer. Allegiant’s online reservation system shows those flights canceled through late June. 

Along with losing one-third of its flights, Santa Maria won’t see United Airlines’s expanded service arrive as soon as expected after the firm notified local officials of a delay. 

In January, airport and city representatives gathered in the terminal for the eagerly-awaited announcement of new daily scheduled flights to Los Angeles International Airport, San Francisco International Airport and Denver International Airport, with service set to begin in early June. 

However, travel-related restrictions and advisories due to the COVID-19 pandemic have severely affected the airline industry’s existing service and delayed expansion.

In recent weeks, United has slashed a large portion of its flights in the United States amid growing orders for residents to shelter in their homes. 

The new passenger service now is expected to launch Oct. 1, Hastert said.

Santa Barbara Airport’s new red-eye flight to Chicago still appeared to be on track to begin in June, according to the online reservation system. 

Zachrisson said she was awaiting an update from United whether it will begin as planned, but suspects it might be delayed.

The dive in passenger traffic follows two months with higher numbers in 2020, Zachrisson said. In January, the airport saw 38 percent more passengers than the previous year,  while it was 45 percent higher this February compared to 2019.

It’s not just airlines feeling the pain of COVID-19.

Rental car agencies located at the airports along with fixed-based operators that provide fuel and other services also have been affected by the dramatic drop.

“There is a glut of unrented cars all over the country,” Zachrisson said, adding that airports have struggled to find parking for these rental cars, some of which have been parked on streets temporarily.

“There’s really no place where there is not an impact. It’s just a degree of severity,” she added.

It’s too early to tell how airport coffers will suffer from lost revenue from landing fees, fuel sales and more. 

“We haven’t been at this even a month yet to figure what the hit looks like,” she said.

“No question, though, that it’s going to be a pretty severe hit,” she added.

The severe impact on the airlines industry has been likened to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the recession a decade ago that both were followed by slow recoveries. The industry still has fewer flights than it did in 2011, but puts more people on planes, a practice that might be revisited in the aftermath of the pandemic.

It’s not clear how the federal stimulus package will aid airlines and related travel industry, leaving airports in a holding pattern for now. 

“I think we all figure we’re in it for a bit of a haul at this point,” Zachrisson said.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.