Mayor Alice Patino, Economic Development Director Suzanne Singh, and United Airlines pilot Alberto Diaz.
United Airlines on Wednesday announced new daily non-stop flights between Santa Maria and Los Angeles, San Franscisco and Denver. Pictured from left are Mayor Alice Patino, Economic Development Director Suzanne Singh, and United Airlines pilot Alberto Diaz, managing director of the firm’s hub at Los Angeles International Airport. (Janene Scully / Noozhawk photo)

Daily scheduled flights will resume at the Santa Maria Public Airport starting in June, carrying passengers to and from Los Angeles, San Francisco and Denver, according to a highly-anticipated announcement about expanded service.

The United Airlines nonstop service using the 50-passenger CRJ-200 regional jets flying as United Express will kick off June 4 between Santa Maria and Los Angeles International Airport, San Francisco International Airport and Denver International Airport.

More than 100 people gathered inside the airport terminal Friday for the announcement about expanded air service, welcoming the news after more than two years without daily scheduled passenger flights in Santa Maria.

Passengers won’t have to wait long to make reservations since tickets will be available for purchase on Saturday.

“I think this is a really important landmark day,” Mayor Alice Patino said.

“We weren’t expecting this kind of turnout, but obviously it’s very important to the community,” said Alberto Diaz, managing director of United’s hub at LAX and a pilot. 

Santa Maria will become the 20th California airport served by United, he added.

“Beginning this new service in Santa Maria represents the growing importance of connecting California’s Central Coast to the world,” Diaz said, adding that the flights to three hubs will let passengers connect to more than 800 flights and 300 cities around the world.

Denver will offer a new market long sought by Santa Maria officials due to the proximity of aerospace firms and military organizations affiliated with Vandenberg Air Force Base. 

“We believe that air service from Santa Maria to major getaway airports — LAX, San Francisco, Denver — is a very important tool as we work to attract new businesses and grow our existing businesses, ranging from hospitality businesses like mine to the growing space operation at Vandenberg Air Force Base,” said Jean-Luc Garon, board chairman for the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce & Visitor’s Bureau.

Dominick Barry, president and chief operations officer, of Santa Maria-based Quintron Systems, said the aerospace contractor has employees who routinely travel globally.

“I couldn’t be happier to have the ability to drive right down from my office, park my car in the parking lot, and jump on a plane, rather than having to transfer to other airports in the local area,” Barry said. “Very ineffective, very inefficient for a small company like us.” 

The airport in Santa Barbara County’s largest city has struggled to keep passenger service while neighboring airports in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara — both county seats and home to universities — have grown.

Santa Maria typically touts its free parking as a key incentive to lure passengers away from other airports. 

Efforts to recruit daily passenger service back to Santa Maria have included letter-writing campaigns from a cross-section of the community, visits to airlines, and the creation of a Santa Maria Airline Recruitment Team, or SMART.

“This is a whole community effort, and I appreciate everybody’s help,” said Chuck Adams, president of the Santa Maria Public Airport District board of directors.

United, through Skywest Airlines operating as United Express, has flown previously at Santa Maria, but left in 2016. 

A Hawaiian-based airline landed in Santa Maria flying first to Los Angeles International Airport and later Burbank, but ended in 2017 after approximately a year of service despite receiving $900,000 in revenue subsidies from the Santa Maria Public Airport District. 

That had left Allegiant Air as the only passenger service, flying to and from Las Vegas a few times a week.

While tickets will be purchased through United Airlines, flights will operated locally as United Express through a regional partner, likely to be Utah-based SkyWest Airlines.

The Santa Maria airport, which is operated by an independent special district overseen by a board of directors, expects to provide an incentive package yet to be finalized. Incentive packages can include revenue guarantees and more.

The airport district has a $490,000 grant  to help from the Small Community Air Service Development Program through the U.S. Department of Transportation. 

“There’s a lot of risks for an airline entering into a new market, so we try to abate some of that risk so we do fee waivers and marketing support as well,” said airport General Manager Chris Hastert. “We’re very hopeful that the service is going to do very well, because when service does well, you don’t tap into the funds.” 

On Friday morning, he savored the hubbub of activity as dozens of excited people milled around after the announcement. 

“I think it caught most people by surprise with three hubs,” Hastert said, 

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