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Sonoma County airport looks east for new destinations as passenger numbers continue on record pace

When Reno-based Aha Airlines last month abruptly shut down and filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy, it wasn’t the loss of the airline at Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport that was most disappointing.

The carrier had only been flying out of Santa Rosa for roughly six weeks.

“The disappointment was the loss of the destination,” said Airport Manager Jon Stout. “We spent about 10 years trying to get Reno added, and there's just not the right fit for a lot of operators that operate out of Reno.”

Aha wasn’t expected factor heavily in the airport’s passenger volumes anyway, Stout said, because they flew just two days a week with a 50-seat airplane.

But after years of seeking to add eastern hubs that would expand business and leisure connections to Sonoma County, the loss of Reno represented another setback for an airport that saw passenger levels dip to 10-year lows amid the 2020 pandemic shutdown.

A sharp reversal is underway, with travel in and out of the county airport on track to surpass 2019 records. Airlines, however, remain cautious about expansions at this point, a limiting factor for many regional hubs like Sonoma County.

“We want to get Denver back, and we want Chicago,” Stout said. “We need more eastbound opportunities for connectivity. Those are the most likely options and they have significant demand on their own.”

United Airlines has yet to resume its service to Denver from Sonoma County after halting it nearly two years ago when air travel hit record lows nationwide amid the pandemic.

In July, United announced it would suspend all service at the airport on Nov. 1, which at this point is only flights to San Francisco. The airline has made similar moves at other regional airports, citing ongoing pilot and crew shortages and high gas prices.

United is interested in coming back to Santa Rosa, Stout said, but that could be a couple of years away.

United and American, which flies to Dallas and Phoenix out of Sonoma County, have expressed interest in bringing Chicago flights to the airport but not anytime soon.

The loss of Reno comes as the airport marks what could be its busiest-ever year, with passenger levels on track to shatter 2019 records.

For the first eight months of the year, the airport has accommodated 398,688 passengers, up 70.6% from a year earlier, and up 205.6% from the same period in 2020, according to the latest figures.

By the end of 2019, it had served 488,000 passengers, extending a 10-year growth streak as the airport added a number of new destinations and extra flights. The pandemic ended that streak, but the rebound picked up in 2021 and looks set to speed ahead this year even amid some of pullback from carriers.

The airport is on pace to hit about 625,000 passengers, according to Stout.

“We did slow down a little bit around Labor Day, but it has (since) picked back up,” he said, noting the airport remains on track to finish the year “strong.”

Looking at passenger figures for the month of August, the dominant carrier Alaska Airlines, plus United, American Airlines and Avelo Airlines, together flew 56,528 passengers, up 25.4% from the same time in 2021 but down from 61,099 in July, according to airport officials.

Alaska Airlines in August flew 34,700 passengers through Santa Rosa, up 23.5% from a year earlier. The airline’s load factor — the measure of how full airplanes are on average — was 85%.

American Airlines last month flew 10,637 passengers through the regional airport, up 4.4% from a year earlier. American’s load factor was 75%.

Burbank-based Avelo Airlines in August flew 9,369 passengers through the airport, up 98.7% from August 2021. Its load factor was 58%.

United Airlines flew 1,549 passengers through the facility last month, with a load factor of 53%.

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