Sonoma County Airport soars with new airline carriers in 2017

CYNTHIA SWEENEY,

After operating for almost a decade with a sole carrier, Alaska Airlines, the Charles M. Schulz–Sonoma County Airport suddenly found itself with five in 2017.

In February, American began flying from Sonoma County to Phoenix. In July, it added a second daily flight to its Arizona hub.

Also in July, United began flights from Sonoma County to San Francisco connecting travelers to and from Wine Country to national and international flights.

Sun Country Airlines, based in Minneapolis-St. Paul, began seasonal service between Santa Rosa and the Twin Cities in August. Flights run twice weekly through December.

The Las Vegas-based low-cost airline Allegiant Airlines had began operating twice weekly flights between Santa Rosa and Las Vegas and Mesa in May 2016 but Allegiant ceased operations July 30, however, due to uneven passenger traffic.

The arrival of new carriers was the result of years of negotiations, Airport Manager Jon Stout told The Journal earlier this year.

“When Alaska was the only airlines [servicing the airport], quite a few other carriers were watching to see how good they were doing,” he said. “Then when Allegiant came, they were like, wait a minute, somebody else sees something here. And they started digging deeper. Then it kind of started to steamroll.”

All of this added service has increased passenger traffic from 339,000 in 2016, to a projected 450,000 passengers in 2017.

That’s a passenger level the airport had been planning to reach by 2025, Stout said.

And that forced the airport to quickly shift the focus from attracting carriers to expanding the infrastructure and maintaining carriers.

To accommodate the added airlines, the airport expanded its existing plans for a renovation to the terminal, as well as adding another parking lot, at an estimated to cost of $27 million.

The size of planned terminal expansion went from 19,000 square feet to about 28,000 square feet.

If the market responds well, Sun Country will try more service in the spring. If the spring season works, it would potentially look to offer service year-round, and from there, two or three flights per week, Stout said.

Also, connection times from Minneapolis-St. Paul to Boston and New York are good, so there is opportunity to use the service going further east, which has always been a goal for the airport.

“It’s going to be an interesting test, which could help us get United to go to Denver. Somebody’s got to show there’s traffic that wants to go east,” Stout said earlier this year.

Car-rental businesses at the airport are also setting records, with 25 percent increases for the past four years, and more than $6 million a year in sales, Stout said. On a busy day, each of the five agencies deals with a minimum of 150 cars.

The goal now is to facilitate the drop-off and pickup in be in the same place, making for a better customer experience and more efficient for the operators. Stout said.

That project, still at the conceptual level, will be paid for through fees paid by rental-car customers.