The Hawaii-based airline that had expanded to the mainland to include Santa Maria service has departed after failing to attract enough passengers to support the flights.
Mokulele Airlines stopped its Santa Maria Public Airport flights effective Nov. 30, leaving Allegiant Air as the only airline providing scheduled passenger service from the airport. Allegiant flies three days a week between Santa Maria and Las Vegas.
“I don’t think there is one clear reason why the service didn’t work out,” said Chris Hastert, general manager of the Santa Maria Public Airport. “But ultimately we did not see ridership numbers improving enough to continue with our airline support program, which included revenue guarantees, fee waivers and marketing support.”
Mokulele began offering service in Santa Maria in late 2016, first flying to and from Los Angeles International Airport.
As those flights failed to fill adequately, earlier this year the company switched to offer flights to the Hollywood Burbank Airport in the fall.
A smaller airport, Hollywood Burbank still had multiple connections to other airlines, but was expected to have fewer delays than those encountered at extremely busy LAX.
To help support the new service, the airport board agreed to guarantee Mokulele Airlines revenue, with more than $900,000 of district funds handed to the company as subsidies since last year.
The revenue subsidies were part of an incentive package to help the airline while building the new service in Santa Maria.
“Mokulele started service to Santa Maria in partnership with the airport authority,” said Rob Mckinney, president of the family owned and operated airline. “The intention was to build air service to a self-sustaining level. For a variety of reasons, that didn’t happen, and the partnership ended at the end of November.”
As part of its expansion to the mainland, Mokulele began flights at the Santa Maria airport in October 2016, starting up as United Airlines stopped serving the northern Santa Barbara County community.
Mokulele flies 9-passenger Cessna Grand Caravan single-engine airplanes, much smaller than the regional jets used by United Express or the 19-passenger turboprop planes it previously used.
Hastert said the fact Mokulele used single-engine aircraft accommodating nine passengers meant it was hard to make a profit unless people filled the seats. Higher ticket prices would have left Mokulele unable to compete with other airlines.
Despite the setback, airport officials still are working to expand air service, planning to meet with SkyWest Airlines representatives in January.
The focus of meetings with major airlines and regional air carriers involving flights to eastbound hubs such as Phoenix, Salt Lake City or Denver.
“We feel we are getting closer to positive news,” Hastert said. “However, it is a difficult industry to get a commitment from, as airlines are dealing with issues related to aircraft availability, pilot shortages and competition for routes.”
Santa Maria’s airport has long struggled to boost air service amid competition from San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara airports, both of which are county seats and communities with universities.
To help attract customers, Santa Maria has continued to provide free parking for long-term and short-term users.