United Airlines announces plans to drop service to Santa Maria

United Airlines announced it will end service to and from the Santa Maria Public Airport in early October. The announcement comes more than a year since it dropped flights to Santa Maria and added flights to San Francisco.
United Airlines announced it will end service to and from the Santa Maria Public Airport in early October. The announcement comes more than a year since it dropped flights to Santa Maria and added flights to San Francisco. Noozhawk.com

The San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport general manager said he hopes the facility picks up some of the customers that will no longer be flying out of Santa Maria after United Airlines announced it will end all flights to and from the Santa Maria Public Airport beginning in October.

United typically operates three round-trip flights to San Francisco and four round-trip flights to Los Angeles daily from the San Luis Obispo airport. American Airlines also typically operates four round-trip daily flights to Phoenix from the local airport.

Kevin Bumen, general manager of the San Luis Obispo airport, said he has not been contacted about any additional flights to San Luis Obispo, but he said that airlines change their schedules frequently, and the airport would welcome new opportunities.

United Express, operated locally by SkyWest Airlines, currently has two round-trip flights a day to San Francisco out of the Santa Maria airport — a morning and afternoon departure and an afternoon and late-evening arrival. The last day the airline operates flights out of the Santa Maria airport will be Oct. 5.

United flights at the airport have been underperforming since the airline began offering service to San Francisco instead of Los Angeles in May 2015, Santa Maria Public Airport District general manager Chris Hastert said.

The airline began flying 50-seat regional jets in May 2015 instead of 30-seat turboprop planes. Halting the service between Santa Maria and Los Angeles and adding flights to San Francisco were part of the change.

Hastert estimated the San Francisco flights were typically about 50 percent full — a number that needed to be about 60 percent or higher to make them viable, he said.

The Santa Maria airport will continue to offer three round-trip weekly flights to Las Vegas.

“Those passengers have to go somewhere,” Bumen said. “There are several airports that ultimately those passengers will choose to travel from, and we hope we become the airport of choice.”

Bumen added that a new terminal under construction at the San Luis Obispo airport will be even more equipped to accommodate an uptick in passengers.

The load factor — how many passengers fill the planes’ seats — is in the low- to mid-80 percent range for an average San Luis Obispo airport flight, Bumen said.

“We’re certainly disappointed to see United leave a neighboring market,” he said. “We look at this as a network. To have United in neighboring markets certainly brings benefits to the passengers.”

For its part, United said the decision was simply a business one.

“We continually review supply and demand for service in all of the markets we serve,” United spokesman Jonathan Guerin wrote in an email to The Tribune. “We made the difficult decision to end service between Santa Maria and San Francisco, because the route did not meet our expectations and is no longer sustainable.”

United customers who have booked travel to or from the Santa Maria airport after Oct. 5 will be contacted by United, Guerin wrote.

Hastert said he thought the San Francisco flights could have performed better if United had paid closer attention to the local market.

He attributes the airline’s success at neighboring airports to SkyWest having more of a say in schedules and fares at those locations. United also offers nonstop service between Denver, Los Angeles and San Francisco from Santa Barbara Municipal Airport.

Additionally, military and government contractors are no longer using the airline’s Santa Maria service as much as they used to, Hastert said. He attributed the drop to connections not being as convenient and fares priced well above those offered at competing airports.

United made changes to its reservation system the day after the company notified airport officials about the canceled service, Hastert said. He added that he would have expected the airline to give them earlier notice.

Hastert said he does not anticipate a major financial loss for the Santa Maria facility.

He said the airport has diverse revenue sources, and United is not a major one.

“If anything, we may be able to cut some costs and stay about even,” Hastert said.

Airport representatives plan to meet with major airlines with the goal of offering flights with a different airline to a different hub.

Hastert said the new hub and airline would ideally be one of the following: Salt Lake City with Delta Air Lines, Phoenix with American Airlines, Seattle with Alaska Airlines or Denver with United. The latter United flight is unlikely, Hastert said.

It would take a minimum of six months to a year for another carrier to begin offering service in Santa Maria.

There is less risk involved for a new airline coming in now that they won’t be competing with United, Hastert said. He added that he hopes whatever airline the airport ends up working with will take time to understand the local market.

Allegiant Air will continue to offer flights from the Santa Maria airport after United stops its service. The airline’s flights to Las Vegas have been popular, Hastert said. He doesn’t anticipate any reductions in the schedule and hopes to potentially add flights to other Allegiant destinations such as Oakland or Mesa, Arizona, as well.

Noozhawk North County Editor Janene Scully contributed to this report.