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Sonoma County airport begins construction on $31M terminal improvement project

After eight years of planning, changes, disruptions and delays, Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport’s $31 million terminal improvement and modernization project kicked off Monday.

“This has been a project that's been a long time coming,” said airport manager Jon Stout.

Work on the airport master plan began in 2012 with schematic reviews of what might be needed.

“At that point, we knew we needed to have our passenger volumes grow to be able to afford the terminal project,” Stout said. Three years later, they did.

In fact, they had to expand the project because passenger traffic grew faster than expected.

“Today is a capstone for the airport that could,” state Sen. Mike McGuire said at the Monday groundbreaking ceremony. “The Charles M. Schulz airport has grown over the last two decades from a once sleepy airfield to one of the most popular regional airports in the entire Golden State.”

Initially, the plan was to add about 19,000 square feet, which would have put the project at about $20 million, but the addition grew, raising the cost to $31 million, Stout said.

Funding for the project comes primarily from Federal Aviation Administration grants totaling $23.8 million. An additional $7.51 million will be paid from airport revenues and passenger facility charges. No other tax dollars or county general funds will be utilized, according to airport officials.

The airport project includes 33,000 square feet of new construction and 7,000 square feet of renovation. Once construction is complete, the terminal’s total square footage will be approximately 56,000 square feet. A Gate 1 modular facility will be demolished and replaced in addition to concession space, a new automated passenger exit lane and a two-lane Transportation Security Administration checkpoint.

In addition, there will be two new baggage claim systems, relocation of the rental car counters, creation of an outdoor seating and dining area, and a new ticketing lobby. The terminal entrance will be renovated to include canopies adjacent to an expanded entry to accommodate additional and consolidated ticketing kiosks and improved passenger flow.

“I can’t think of a year when we have not talked about this day,” said Susan Gorin, chairwoman of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors. “We may not look like Dulles, we may not look like San Francisco, but this is the friendliest airport to fly to, to drive to, to connect to, and that’s exactly what we want from Sonoma County. The ease of access to and from (the county) and other areas north and south is unparalleled.”

Stout noted the $31 million cost includes a contingency amount.

“We're hoping that we will come in under budget but it depends on what we find in the dirt, and other unforeseen issues behind the walls,” Stout said, adding the airport is located on a former military base. “Since we are doing renovations and connecting to an existing building, there can be surprises.”

The project is scheduled for completion in October 2022, but Stout thinks it’s possible it will be wrapped up sooner, depending on how things ramp up when COVID-19 gets under control.

“With the reduction in passenger volumes, we're able to take advantage of that and shuffle some of the phasing around, simplify the build and hopefully complete the project a bit early,” he said.

The novel coronavirus has profoundly impacted the airport since the pandemic hit in mid-March, though passenger volume has slowly started to inch back up. At its worst in April, year-over-year passenger traffic dropped by an average of 95%.

In October, United Airlines was expected to bring back its Denver flight but decided to suspend all service to the Sonoma County airport, including its San Francisco flights, as of Nov. 1, Stout told the Business Journal last month.

“What they’re telling us is that they’ll bring back both San Francisco and Denver on March 27, 2021,” Stout said at the time. “That will depend on how COVID improves between now and then, but we are working with United very closely. It is just a suspension; they’re not closing their station (at the airport).”

The airport’s passenger volume in September improved from August, but year-over-year figures remain down 67.6%. Figures for October are expected next week.

At this time, there are three commercial carriers servicing the airport — Alaska Airlines, American Airlines and United Airlines. Stout and county officials continue to work to bring other commercial airlines to Santa Rosa.

But right now, Stout is focused on continuing to elevate Charles M. Schulz–Sonoma County Airport.

“In 2020, it's been hard to remember to take the time to celebrate your achievements, and this has been a long-coming achievement,” Stout said.

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