Pandemic caps turbulent year at Sonoma County airport with 60% traffic decline, more suspended flights

Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport closed out 2020 with the lowest passenger volume in a decade, and American Airlines temporarily suspended service to one market, an airport official said on Tuesday.

After flying 488,179 passengers in 2019 — its highest volume ever — the Santa Rosa airport entered 2020 looking like it had a real shot at hitting the half-million mark, but it ended the year having flown just 195,303 passengers, a 60% year-over-year decline, said Airport Manager Jon Stout.

“I don't know anybody that was prepared or thinking something on this scale was going to hit,” Stout said. “A year ago at this time, we were contemplating another record year. Based on our discussions with our airline partners, we were looking at being at 19 to 20 flights a day at our peak, which would have been around July through September.”

When the economy began to reopen in June — briefly, as it turned out — the airport’s numbers started to improve. By late summer, Stout was estimating passenger volume for all of 2020 might be about 50% of 2019. Then more shutdowns came. When it was all said and done, Stout’s estimation wasn’t too far off from his earlier projection.

But the year wouldn’t end quietly.

In December, American Airlines, which services the San Francisco, Phoenix and Dallas markets at the airport, announced it intended to reduce its Dallas flights from daily to five days a week in January, as the Business Journal reported at the time. Instead, it suspended service to Dallas altogether, citing the pandemic, Stout said. American’s last flight to Dallas was on Jan. 2.

“They do want to bring it back,” he said. “It's just a question of when.”

American and Alaska Airlines, the two commercial airlines currently servicing the Santa Rosa airport, collectively flew a total of 10,912 passengers in December, down 75.4% from December 2019, according to airport officials.

American in December carried 3,745 passengers through the Sonoma County airport, down 60.9% from December 2019. The carrier’s load factor — the measure of how full its airplanes were on average — was 40%, down 49.9% from a year earlier.

Alaska Airlines last month serviced 7,167 passengers, down 76.3% from December 2019. Alaska’s load factor was 28%, down 67.1% from a year earlier.

United Airlines, which on Nov. 1 temporarily halted all service to the airport, is still expected to resume flights to its San Francisco and Denver markets in late March, depending on the status of the pandemic, Stout said.

When asked about the status of Sun Country, which a year ago shuttered its seasonal flights to the Minneapolis and Las Vegas markets after three years, Stout said the carrier likely won’t be back.

“The agreement ended in August,” he said, noting the carrier removed its equipment from the facility in October. “With everything going on, I'm not surprised.”

Stout said he’s estimating the airport this year will land somewhere between 70% and 75% of the nearly half-million passenger volume reached in 2019, based on travel demand as the COVID-19 vaccines become more widely available.

“Like most things, it takes a little while to ramp up and roll them out,” Stout said, adding he’s projecting travel starting to come back in mid- to late summer. “I think people are tired of their staycations and they're going to want to get out. … I hear a lot of that.”

He anticipates leisure travelers will come back first, with business travel returning at a slower pace.

“As businesses adapted to dealing with the remote workers, it's become pretty effective, but it doesn't replace all in-person contact and business dealings,” Stout said.

This story has been updated to include projections for 2021.

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