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Airport officials optimistic about adding flights next spring

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Riding strong commercial flight sales, Sonoma County airport expects to see expanded service to three international hubs starting next spring.

Alaska Airlines, which operates nine nonstop flights daily from Santa Rosa to five West Coast cities during summer peaks, will add a second daily trip to San Diego International Airport starting March 19. The year-round Southern California route is the airline’s busiest from Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport, leading the Seattle airline to commit to its 10th flight next spring.

Not to be outdone, American Airlines, which began offering direct seasonal service to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport in June, has signaled it will transition the route to a year-round service after the flight returns in the spring. That flight, which has logged average passenger capacities at better than 80% through September, is set to end Jan. 6 before returning on a more permanent basis on April 7. And there’s a possible second daily flight from here to American’s headquarters in the future.

United Airlines, which began nonstop service to Denver International Airport in March, also has indicated its 91% average passenger capacities through August aboard its 50-seat jet may lead the Chicago airline to shift to a 76-seat plane this spring. Alaska and American each already operate flights on the larger aircraft.

American and United’s plans remain tentative, airport manager Jon Stout said. But local airport officials expect to firm up airlines’ 2020 commitments around Thanksgiving.

Already this year, the regional airport saw more than 362,000 passengers through September — about an 8.5% increase from this time last year.

Those numbers put Sonoma County on pace to surpass last year’s record count of 440,000 passengers by another 40,000, Stout said.

With the addition of Alaska’s second trip to San Diego — a morning option to go with the current evening route — the airport will hit an all-time high of 15 daily flights out of Santa Rosa during peak periods. Minnesota’s Sun Country Airlines operates seasonal routes to and from Minneapolis-St. Paul and Las Vegas during the summer and fall as well, bringing the total to 16 daily flights overall on its service days.

A study by the airport has shown that each new route adds direct and indirect benefits of $23 million annually to the local economy, plus 70 new jobs.

“That kind of expansion is an amazing thing for our economy. Our tourism industry benefits greatly,” said Peter Rumble, CEO of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce.

Each extra flight also comes with added greenhouse-gas emissions, however. A report released last month by the International Council on Clean Transportation shows a 32% rise in global aviation emissions over the past five years — a growth rate more than 1.5 times what a United Nations policy group had predicted.

“It’s a constant issue, and there’s just a tremendous amount of momentum for people to do business and recreate with air travel. It’s going to be a real challenge to deal with,” said Jerry Bernhaut, a Santa Rosa-based environmental attorney. “The impacts are global, but attributed to our region because our local government is making the decision to permit (more) air travel.”

California has set a target of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050 to 80% below levels measured in 1990. To motivate action, the state aims to hit 40% below 1990 levels by 2030.

To help in that effort, the airport last month committed to 100% renewable power by adding solar panels to cover its energy needs, excluding its tenants. On an annual basis, the project is expected to reduce the airport’s carbon footprint by almost 1,000 metric tons, or the equivalent of 2.5 million miles traveled by the average car, and save the airport $155,000 in energy costs.

The solar canopy project over one of the airport’s long-term parking lots is expected to be finished and operational by next summer. The airport is also working toward a 30,000-square-foot expansion at a cost of $25 million that is set for completion by the end of 2022.

Flights out of Santa Rosa are capped at 21 daily commercial departures, per the environmental study approvals. On days next year with 16 flights, that still leaves a quarter of the allowed allocation unused.

In upcoming fall meetings with the airlines, local airport officials said they plan to inquire about adding more flights.

That will include: restoring Alaska’s previous direct route to Las Vegas; shifting one of its seasonal flights to Seattle or Portland to year-round service; exploring possible Alaska flights to Palm Springs and Burbank; and asking other airlines about flights to Chicago.

“Chicago is on the discussion list for American and United, but it’s probably too soon since we were just given Denver and Dallas,” Stout said. “But we need to start that discussion because it can take several years for new service to be added.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

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