San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport isn't the only facility searching for smooth air during a turbulent time in the airline industry.
Finding carriers willing to add seats or routes is a tough business for airport managers charged with attracting and retaining service.
Santa Maria airport
“We are always looking to expand the number of destinations our traveling passengers can reach from Santa Maria,” said Chris Hastert, general manager of Santa Maria Airport. “We try to watch all the different airlines and what’s going on in the industry. But it’s difficult because the number of airlines is shrinking.
Two airlines, United Express and Allegiant, currently serve the Santa Maria Airport. United offers about four daily flights to Los Angeles; Allegiant has three flights to Las Vegas each week. Allegiant stopped its service from Santa Maria to Hawaii in August 2013.
The airport saw a 15 percent increase in passenger traffic in 2013 over the previous year. A total of 76,278 passengers traveled through the airport through October of this year, the latest month for which data was available for Santa Maria. Passenger traffic on the two airlines that serve Santa Maria is expected to be about the same, if not better, than last year, Hastert said.
The airport would like to offer a Denver flight. However, that may not happen in the immediate future, Hastert said.
“The airlines are changing the way they do business, and it’s just getting worse unfortunately,” he said.
Despite these challenges, Hastert is hopeful that Santa Maria Airport will grow, particularly as its population grows.
He also touted the airport’s improvements, including a new runway extension in 2012 that accommodates larger aircraft.
As well, the airport has taken advantage of a $490,000 small community airport service grant to seek better eastbound service. With fee waivers and revenue guarantees, the airport’s total marketing package exceeds $1.2 million, he said.
“Santa Maria is heavily influenced by Vandenberg (Air Force Base) and civilian contractors,” Hastert said. “That’s why we’re proposing Denver service. Santa Maria has a strong and growing manufacturing community, and we’re working with those businesses to identify the different service areas.”
Santa Barbara airport
Meanwhile, Santa Barbara Airport, which has United, U.S. Airways and Alaska Airlines, is also working with all carriers to "maintain the service we have and to enhance it," said Hazel Johns, airport manager.
In 2010, the airport lost its Delta flights to Salt Lake City.
In April of this year, the airport lost its four daily flights to Los Angeles on American Airlines. The airport is also coping with the recent loss of Frontier, which offered flights to Denver three or four days a week. The airline pulled out of the West Coast as part of a restructuring effort.
United continues to provide service to Denver, but Johns isn’t certain whether that airline will take advantage of the opportunity to expand.
Passenger traffic at Santa Barbara Airport declined 2.6 percent in 2013 over the previous year. Through November of this year, the airport had a passenger count of 611,966, which is about a 5 percent to 6 percent decrease from the previous year, Johns said.
“It’s not the demand; it’s the seats,” said Johns, noting that it’s unlikely that a new airline will start up service there. “People want to fly, but there are no seats to put them in.”
To sweeten the deal for airlines, Santa Barbara Airport has the ability to waive landing fees for airlines that start a new service, add a route or restore one that had been discontinued. The airport also pledges to do advertising for an airline up to $50,000 a year for a particular flight.
In 2011, the airport opened a new, two-story terminal. It also depends on non-aviation sources of revenue, such as rental income from tenants on its commercial and industrial property.
It’s rented out to a variety of uses, ranging from research and development, construction yards, a recycling center, Southern California Edison, a golf course and tire shop.
Monterey Regional Airport's focus is on maintaining and expanding service, as well as promotion. The airport uses social media, including Facebook and Twitter, and has a weekly newsletter, in which travelers are encouraged to use their airport close to home.
“We always struggle because we have close competition with San Jose and San Francisco,” said Jennifer Hickerson, airport spokeswoman. “It’s tough with San Jose and San Francisco because they have so much competition with fares. A lot of the fares here are decent, but there’s this perception and people don’t even check.”
Monterey Regional offers service on United Express, Alaska Airlines, Allegiant, U.S. Airways and American. There are daily flights to Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Francisco, San Diego, and twice weekly service to Las Vegas.
In June, the airport lost its one direct flight to Denver on United Airlines. The airline wanted to see a higher percentage of people getting off at Denver and not making a connection, Hickerson said.
“We’re going to talk to United about possibly starting up again, but we’re not sure what luck we’ll have with that,” she said. “Once they pull a flight, it’s hard to get it back.”
The airport, which used a now expired $500,000 small community air service grant for marketing, is doing a better job of promoting its convenience.
In 2005, about 73 percent of travelers chose to fly out of another airport. Now, that leak to other airports is down to about 60 percent, she said.
Passenger traffic increased more than 4 percent in 2013 over the previous year. Through November of this year, passenger traffic totaled 353,066. The year-end total will likely be lower than last year, due to the loss of Denver and canceled flights in San Francisco.
Although there have been some challenges, Hickerson is banking on gaining new service to Seattle. The airport has another $500,000 grant to offer a revenue guarantee for a carrier like Alaska to offer service to the Pacific Northwest.
If the climate does not improve, as a backstop, it also has commercial buildings on its property for rent, including RV and boat storage, an auto repair shop, rental car agencies and a wood-working business.
The success of the airport and other regional airports, though, will depend largely on community support and finding innovative ways to gain the airlines’ attention.
“You’re going to have to work harder,” she said. “We’re not on the map for them (airlines), and all airports our size are competing for the same service.”