Santa Rosa air travel points to rising economy

SANTA ROSA -- Higher numbers of inbound flyers and an uptick in private aviation at Charles M. Schulz--Sonoma County Airport, together with record airline passenger volume in 2012, point towards a deeper recovery for activity at the North Bay's only commercial airport.

Commercial and private aviation are betting the recent growth will continue. Moves in that direction include commitment from the airport's only airline, Horizon Air, to an additional Los Angeles flight this summer and KaiserAir's completed construction of a new hangar to serve private customers, according to Jon Stout, airport general manager.

That growth has captured the interest of other carriers, though Mr. Stout said that discussions will likely wait until the expected completion of the airport's runway extension in July 2014.

"They really like our numbers, but they can't service the runway with their current aircraft," said Mr. Stout. Some carriers would have to leave seats empty or carry less fuel to take off or land at the runways' current lengths.

At 214,000 passengers moving through the airport, 2012 was the busiest year for commercial flying -since Horizon Air began operating there in 2007. Commercial traffic for the year beat the previous record set in 2011 by 3.2 percent.

More individuals flew into Santa Rosa in 2012, reflecting growth in tourism and other draws for visitors, Mr. Stout said. Roughly half the travelers were visiting the region from elsewhere, up from 42 percent in 2011.

More of those passengers were renting cars upon arrival as well, he said. Gross rental car revenue was up 11 percent through November -- the most recent data available -- compared with the same period in 2011.

There were 61,882 takeoffs or landings, or "operations," in the first nine months of 2012, up 3.7 percent versus the same period in 2011 and representing the most recent data available. Nearly 3,700 of those operations were commercial flights, up 3.8 percent, and 58,200 were private operations, up 3.6 percent.

While combined commercial and private activity is less than half the recent peak of nearly 135,000 operations in all of 2001, Mr. Stout said that the recent increase represents a continuing recovery for private and commercial air travel and a broader economic recovery in the region.

Growth in the wine industry has been a major source of activity for KaiserAir, according to Bronwyn Lindsay, assistant manager of the Oakland-based charter's private terminal in Santa Rosa.

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