[caption id="attachment_43320" align="alignleft" width="360"] Horizon Air's planes currently carry passengers between Santa Rosa and four West Coast destinations.[/caption]

SANTA ROSA -- Horizon Air has hit a significant milestone as the sole commercial carrier at the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County airport, returning to a number of flight operations not seen since before the recent financial downturn.

For the first time since the recession, the regional subsidiary for Alaska Air Group (NYSE: ALK) operated almost the same number of passenger flights for the nine-month period ended Sept. 30 as during the same period in 2008, according to the airport's monthly passenger report.

Yet those flights are also carrying more passengers, surpassing pre-downturn levels and pointing to a steeper recovery for the North Bay's only commercial airport and the broader region.

"It's showing that the economy is improving," said Jon Stout, airport general manager. "There's still some way to go. But from our standpoint, we're back."

Horizon operated a total of 2,923 incoming and outgoing flights for the nine-month period, nearly level with the 2,908 flights during the previous high in 2008.

That volume had fallen to 2,633 in 2009, as Alaska cut its offerings in response to the recession's impact on commercial air travel. Offerings have increased in recent years, with 2,749 flights in the first nine months of last year.

That period in 2008 had also previously held the record for passenger volume through Sept. 30, a record broken by 2012's 159,991 passengers -- a 1.5 percent increase. This year saw that level increase by another 6.6 percent, at 170,594 passengers for the nine-month period.

A rise in tourism in an improving economy has helped boost that activity. Yet the decision to replace a Las Vegas flight with service to San Diego in June of 2012 could be helping to boost the airport's economic impact in the North Bay even further, said Ken Fischang, CEO of  Sonoma County Tourism, the county's official tourism promoter.

"That San Diego flight really helped. The Vegas flight had more people leaving from here to go there," Mr. Fischang said.

The month of September saw a total of 20,380 incoming and outgoing commercial passengers, up 5.3 percent from last year. Planes were flying at an average at 80 percent capacity in that month, up from 77 percent a year before and 76 percent in 2008.

Passenger load in September was near the 81 percent peak seen this year during the summer months of July and August. Yet those months were also notable for sustaining that passenger volume while operating a greater number of flights, with a 7.5 percent increase in flights in June and a 6.8 percent increase for July.

Aircraft averaged closer to maximum capacity in those months as well, with passenger loads in June, in particular, rising 4 percent. The number of flights was essentially level in September compared to last year.

Commercial flights returned to the airport in March 2007, after a six-year hiatus that followed the exit of United Express in 2001.

Construction is currently under way for the extension and reconfiguration of both runways at the Sonoma County Airport. That work will bring the airport up to current federal guidelines, but could also offer greater flexibility for commercial aircraft and potentially attract new carriers and routes.

The possibility has drawn the interest of many in the North Bay, particularly when considering the potential to connect conveniently with airport hubs towards the inland United States.

"If we have direct flights to places like Denver or Salt Lake City, that can have a huge impact," Mr. Fischang said. "People say, 'The reason I moved my company here is because I came to a meeting here. I spent some leisure time here. I like it here.'"