A Southwest Airlines 737 takes off.
A Southwest Airlines 737 takes off. The carrier announced Wednesday that it will begin serving the Santa Barbara Airport in 2021. (Southwest Airlines photo)

Santa Barbara received what some may consider an early Christmas present on Wednesday when Southwest Airlines announced it will begin serving the Santa Barbara Airport in 2021.

Southwest’s announcement, which included its plan to also serve Fresno Yosemite International Airport, comes as the airline industry continues to be buffeted by significant turbulence stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, which has claimed more than 300,000 lives in the United States.

Airport officials teamed up with the business community to lure the nation’s third largest airline to Santa Barbara, including pledging a significant financial contribution toward the Dallas-based company’s local start-up costs.

Southwest did not announce any specific routes Wednesday, but sources tell Noozhawk the carrier is eyeing service to Oakland, San José, Sacramento and San Diego, as well as existing routes such as Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

“Our arrival in the heart of California, both on the Central Coast and in the Central Valley, will round out nearly four decades of investment in our California customers and communities,” Andrew Watterson, Southwest’s executive vice president and chief commercial officer, said in a news release.

“While other airlines seem to fall in and out of love with the state, we’re focused on increasing the reach of our low fares and flexible policies in places where we expect them to make a difference.”

The current timeline would have Southwest flights from Santa Barbara begin in the second quarter of 2021, according to Deanna Zachrisson, business development manager for the Santa Barbara Airport.

Santa Barbara Mayor Cathy Murillo called the decision by Southwest a “game changer for our entire region.”

“This news couldn’t come at a better time,” she added. “We see the light at the end of the tunnel with the pandemic, and Southwest will come to Santa Barbara just as we all are eager to travel again.”

Southwest, which flies only various models of the Boeing 737 aircraft, reportedly intends to announce the initial routes it will fly after the first of the year, and has planned a three-tier approach to the Santa Barbara market, depending on the success of its efforts.

“Adding Southwest Airlines to the roster of carriers at SBA is a huge achievement,” said Kristen Miller, president and CEO of the Santa Barbara South Coast Chamber of Commerce. “We are proud to find an airline partner with convenient access to a network of destinations that will drive economic growth in many sectors, including business, technology, hospitality and more.

“This achievement further positions our region as one of the leading technology sectors in the country, especially with such easy access to the San Francisco Bay Area.”

The arrival of Southwest will bring an estimated 125 jobs to the community, Miller said — everything from pilots and flight attendants to ramp and gate workers and various support services.

“Southwest Airlines’ arrival is an important milestone for the Santa Barbara community, and not just for leisure travelers,” said Bill Macfadyen, Noozhawk’s publisher and the chamber’s board co-chairman.

“In a year that has been so challenging, this partnership brings exciting opportunities for our regional business community, and some of our nation’s leading innovators and entrepreneurs as they look beyond the current public health and economic crises.”

Southwest takes a unique approach to the business; most notably it does not assign seats to its passengers, nor does it offer traditional first-class or business-class amenities.

By coming into the market, Southwest likely will create some pricing pressure on other airlines, especially if it flies to cities or regions they already are serving.

“The entrance of Southwest Airlines to new markets is known for creating a ‘Southwest effect’ by increasing both competition and demand for air service,” Zachrisson said.

Visit Santa Barbara’s CEO Kathy Janega-Dykes predicts that “the arrival of Southwest Airlines will bring new customers for Santa Barbara’s hotels, restaurants, wineries and attractions. Their famously low fares and expansive network will make us an even stronger competitor for leisure travelers, meetings and destination weddings.”

Airlines currently serving the Santa Barbara Airport include Alaska, American and United, although all have truncated their schedules due to the coronavirus crisis.

Alaska offers daily flights to Portland and Seattle, and announced last summer that it would begin flying to San Diego at the end of November, although the start of that service has since been pushed back.

American is serving Phoenix and Dallas-Fort Worth, although it has reduced its flight schedule and downsized its fleet.

United flies to Denver and San Francisco, but has suspended its flights to LAX, taking away a key connection to other destinations across the county.

Delta Airlines, which returned to the Santa Barbara market in August 2019 after a long hiatus, suspended it daily flights to Salt Lake City in July.

Contour Airlines, which served markets such as Oakland and Sacramento with small commuter jetliners, halted its local flights at the end of March.

Frontier Airlines also halted its seasonal service to Denver in June.

“It really has been such a pleasure to see such a collaboration with the airport, and the city, and Visit Santa Barbara to make this happen,” Miller said.

As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in March and April, airline passenger traffic plummeted in Santa Barbara, as it did around the country.

Airport officials estimated that traffic was down as much as 95% before it began to slowly rebound; over the Thanksgiving weekend, passenger counts at the Santa Barbara were still down about 65% compared to the previous year.

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.