New Seattle-to-SLO flight will increase business, tourism, officials say

San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport representatives say the Central Coast will reap huge economic benefits from its new nonstop service to Seattle by connecting San Luis Obispo to Seattle’s business and technology hub and drawing in rain-weary tourists from the Pacific Northwest.

“We worked closely with the Economic Vitality Corp. and Visit San Luis Obispo County to really have a coalition effort as we worked on this — and build the support within the community — and then share that story with the airline that our market is ready for this, and our community is ready for this,” airport director Kevin Bumen said Wednesday of the yearslong effort to bring the air service to San Luis Obispo.

The new Alaska Airlines flight is scheduled to start April 13, with the first plane leaving Seattle at 8 a.m. and arriving 730 nautical miles (or 840 land miles) south in San Luis Obispo at 10:28 a.m. A flight will then depart San Luis Obispo at noon, arriving in Seattle at 2:35 p.m.

The flight will use a 76-seat Embraer E175 aircraft. The lowest airfare on the Alaska Airlines website was $149 each way, with a first-class ticket costing about $556.

The new flight represents a coup for the airport, which has looked to expand its offerings in recent years, with a goal of obtaining additional service markets to the east such as Denver, Salt Lake City and Dallas, as well as to Pacific Northwest cities such as Seattle.

Bumen said there were two reasons why the Seattle flight could benefit the county: business and tourism.

On the business end, Economic Vitality Corp. CEO Mike Manchak said adding the new flight was “huge.”

“We are in a county that is fairly remote, geographically,” he said. “So we really need flights like this and services that enable companies like Amazon, for instance, that need to get back to their headquarters in Seattle. So this is fantastic.”

Manchak also noted that this will offer the opportunity for Seattle-based businesses to open San Luis Obispo offices and expand their operations into the county, thus adding additional revenue, tax dollars and possibly jobs.

Visit San Luis Obispo County CEO Chuck Davison said Seattle was one of the “top market initiatives” in an $80,000 research project that studied how the county could expand tourism.

“This is the most exciting news in the past 12 months from a tourism standpoint,” Davison said. “From a market standpoint, they are interested in food, wine and beaches. And as most people know, it is rainy and dreary up there six months out of the year, so this is a great opportunity here to come down and enjoy the Central Coast weather.”

The new flight comes at a transitory time in the county. Not only is the airport in the the midst of constructing a new $35.4 million terminal, but the county also is in the beginning stages of deciding how it will address the expected economic fallout associated with the 2025 closure of Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant.

Third District Supervisor Adam Hill, whose district includes the airport, said Wednesday that the flight could help build up the local technological hub and supplement some of that lost revenue from Diablo Canyon.

“This is really critical,” Hill said. “As we make a transition away from Diablo Canyon, we really need to do more to attract more tech companies, more special manufacturing companies — all the folks that are doing things to create head-of-household jobs. And we all know that Seattle is one of the main tech centers of the world, so to have a direct flight is critical.”

The new flight, as well as other recent flight offerings, will additionally go a long way toward increasing the airport’s passenger traffic, after it saw a slight decline in the total number of passengers between 2014 and 2015. The decline was due in part to a switch from smaller commuter planes to larger jets, which then prompted the airlines to drop some daily flights, Bumen previously told The Tribune.

But the airport has begun rebounding in recent months thanks to additional flights to Phoenix, Los Angeles and San Francisco. This year, passenger traffic reached 23,147 people in February, 27,558 in March, 26,292 in April and 29,962 in May — all up from the same months in 2015.

Bumen said the airport is on track to serve more than 300,000 passengers this year (as of May it had recorded 129,503), and the Seattle flight next year will continue to increase those passenger totals in 2017.

Now that it has secured connection to a Pacific Northwest hub, the airport and local stakeholders will continue courting service markets to the east, namely Denver or Dallas.

“Seattle is a great addition for us, but this is definitely not the last of our initiatives,” Davison said. “We want the ability to introduce our market to new people living all over the United States so they can come here and experience all of the great things of San Luis Obispo County. We’ve been having conversations with Denver and Dallas, and we are looking for new opportunities even outside of that to expand our air service to San Luis Obispo County.”