The number of passengers flying to and from the Santa Maria Public Airport District dropped after United Express switched its destinations and aircraft in the spring, but the rate is starting to climb again, according to General Manager Chris Hastert.
United Express, operated locally by SkyWest Airlines, began flying regional jets instead of turboprop planes in May. As part of the change, the airline halted service between Santa Maria and Los Angeles, and launched two daily round-trip flights between Santa Maria and San Francisco.
The load factor — how many passengers filled the planes’ seats — was at 44 percent in May.
“That’s not something that’s sustainable,” said Hastert, in recent remarks to the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce’s manufacturers forum. The load factor rose to 62 percent in June and 69 percent in July. For the first few weeks of August, the number climbed to 74 percent. But the number needs to be closer to 80 percent, Hastert said.
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By comparison, in May 2014 the number was about 62 percent full in the small turboprop planes.
“That was actually profitable for United,” Hastert said, explaining that the smaller planes, which are less expensive to operate, could sustain smaller load factors.
Airport officials expected the numbers to dip some because of the change in aircraft and destinations, he said.
One huge stumbling block is airfares, with Santa Maria’s often being significantly higher — sometimes double — than those for flights at the Santa Barbara Municipal Airport and the San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport.
United implemented the San Francisco destination, saying it offered more United connections and more United flights for passengers, Hastert said.
He said officials are still trying to get service to Denver, but United officials have told them that destination is not their focus right now.
The Colorado destination is popular for Santa Maria because of the number of military personnel and aerospace company workers in northern Santa Barbara County. Santa Maria officials also are courting flights to the Pacific Northwest, such as Portland or Seattle, with a $1.5 million incentive program aimed at attracting airlines of offer other destinations.
“SkyWest is our best bet right now,” Hastert said, adding that Santa Maria officials plan to meet with the airline soon.
The talks will focus on service to Phoenix on American Airlines, to Seattle on Alaska Airlines and to Denver on United Airlines, he said.
San Luis Obispo’s airport is also courting flights to the Pacific Northwest, Denver, Sacramento and Salt Lake City, according to previous Tribune reports.