SLO airport's bid for Denver flight, terminal plan move forward

Travelers enter the terminal at the San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport.
Travelers enter the terminal at the San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

San Luis Obispo County supervisors moved forward Tuesday on two projects that could significantly improve services at the county’s regional airport in San Luis Obispo.

Supervisors voted to allocate $212,500 in county funds to support a two-year revenue guarantee program intended to establish a daily flight between San Luis Obispo and Denver, possibly by summer.

Supervisors also voted to move ahead with design of a new $25 million passenger terminal at the airport. Funding for the design work will come from a combination of $521,404 in county money and a $1 million federal aviation grant.

Supervisors Adam Hill and Caren Ray said a new terminal would make the airport more viable. Hill said the existing terminal is ugly, and Ray said the airport terminal is often the first impression visitors have of the community.

Establishing a daily flight to and from Denver would be a major boost to the county’s economy and the long-term viability of the airport, said Janette Pell, director of county general services. Denver is a large regional air travel hub, so the daily flight from the county airport would make it easier for travelers to get to the East Coast.

More than 50 regional companies have pledged their support for a new United Airlines (or its feeder airline) flight to Denver. Air travel from the regional airport suffered a blow in 2008 when two airlines stopped serving the airport. Since then the airport and Economic Vitality Corp. have worked together to regain more than 90 percent of the service that was lost, according to a county staff report.

At the suggestion of United officials, the county and business community are developing an airline revenue guarantee program with a target of $1.5 million in funding in the form of pledges of ticket purchases and revenue incentives that would make the flight profitable for two years. After that time, the flight could be self-sustaining.

The business community pledged more than $1.3 million in non-binding contributions within a month through its fundraising campaign, according to Michael Manchak, president of the EVC. That’s a “testament to the business community's interest in more flights,’’ he said.

Local business, EVC, tourism and county leaders are planning to meet with United representatives on Dec. 2 in Chicago.

The flight would also have the potential to increase the number of passengers who use the local airport.

According to a consultant's report, the San Luis Obispo airport serves only 42.8 percent of all San Luis Obispo area residents who fly — leaving 57.2 percent to look elsewhere for flights.

Many locals chose instead to use Los Angeles International Airport (25.5 percent) or San Francisco International Airport (11.4 percent), because of the greater number of flights and destinations available.

The county faces competition for the new flight with other regional airports, including the airport in Santa Maria. If successful, the new flight could begin as early as next summer.