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Years of negotiations are finally paying off. And quickly.

With just one airline providing service at this time last year, the Charles M. Schulz–Sonoma County Airport will soon have five.

Now the airport is trying to deftly shift from attracting carriers to making sure the small regional airport’s “quaint” terminal and surrounding facilities can service the new business.

“We’ve been in talks on and off with United for at least 10 years,” said Airport Manager Jon Stout. “And then all of sudden they [United and three other carriers] all said ‘yes.’ We didn’t expect them all to say ‘yes’ within a year,” Stout said.

Call it the domino effect.

“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. “But Alaska is kind of a unique organization with the right kind of aircraft and markets, so other [airlines] weren’t sure. But 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.”

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

United followed, disclosing plans to fly from Sonoma County to San Francisco in June, connecting travelers to and from Wine Country to national and international flights.

TEST FOR EAST COAST FLIGHTS

Sun Country is the latest airline to come on board. The Minneapolis/St. Paul–based airline is a smaller carrier that flies to tourist destinations, and specializes in charters.

“With normal airlines they want to know what the market is going to generate. Sun Country was the only airline that’s ever told me ‘stop. We don’t really care what your numbers are, we think there’s enough opportunity for Minnesota to Sonoma County. Let’s talk about that.’ It flipped the conversation. They’re looking at it mostly being filled with people from Minnesota that want to come and visit wine country,” Stout said.

Sun Country will serve Santa Rosa seasonally to start — August–December. If the market responds well, the carrier 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. Daily service has not been mentioned, Stout said.

Another bonus, 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.

THE NEED TO EXPAND

Now the question is, where to put everybody?

In summer 2016, on the heaviest days, there were 10 flights out of the airport. This summer there will be 15 flights on peak days.

From accommodating 339,000 passengers in 2016, the airport will be faced with a projected 450,000 passengers in 2017.

“The focus now has quickly shifted from attracting carriers to expanding the infrastructure and maintaining carriers,” he said.

Now, instead of meeting with airline executives to negotiate, he’ll be meeting with them to make sure the airlines are happy.

“It’s been a lot of work to get them here, now we need to make sure they do well. Our terminal is quaint. It was never designed for this much volume. We’ve got one of the smallest terminals in the state. We are well short of FAA recommendations for our traffic volume,” he said.

Adding fourth airlines has already forced the airport to increase the size of planned terminal expansion from a planned 19,000 square feet to more like 28,000 square feet.

“The study we used (originally) showed a slower growth rate than we are experiencing,” Stout said. “We’ve hit the 2025 projections this year. So, we’ve grown a bit faster than anticipated.”

Expanding the terminal, as well as adding another parking lot, is currently estimated to cost $27 million.

Sonoma County will pickup with initial costs, through bonds and treasury notes with the airport paying it back through airport fees, airline fees, and passenger facility charges.

Revised, more costly plans, are expected to be brought to the county board of supervisors in May.

“I think the board is prepared to spend money on the project, but wisely,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt. “Although the airport operates on its own funds, what they are doing requires a bigger investment than what they can invest. We’re not a sleepy little regional airport anymore. It’s a positive statement for the county that we can expand.”

Rabbitt would like to see a new terminal constructed from scratch to make a statement: “Now you’re in Sonoma County, a nice place to wait for a flight.”

But what’s being planned for completion in 2019 is much more modest. A modular building, already in place, will handle ticketing for United and American Airlines.

And a $700,000 tent will house security screening and additional gate space. It will roll out the first week of June, with seating for about 250 passengers.

Mead & Hunt in Santa Rosa designed the temporary space, and A.E. Nelson Construction in Rohnert Park is constructing it.

A new $4 million, 4-acre long-term parking area will add 450 spaces. It is being designed by BKF Engineers in Santa Rosa. The goal is to have the project bid by June and completed by the end of the year. Until then, only the current short-term parking lot will be available.

CAR RENTALS

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. On a busy day, each of the five agencies deals with a minimum of 150 cars.

“We’re running out of a place to put cars,” Stout said.

As it is now, the rental process is also scattered throughout the airport and a little confusing.

“If we can make the dropoff and pickup in the same place, it will make 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.

AIRPORT HIRES

The airport will also be adding eight more employees. It is currently staffed with 19, including administration, operations, maintenance, marketing, and security, and will be adding a mix of office and field workers.

Stout himself been the airport’s manager for 15 years. Before that, he was the airport manager at the Grosse Ile Municipal Airport in Michigan for nine years.

Along with coordinating the expansion effort and running the airport, he is on the board of directors of the Southwest chapter of the American Association of Airport Executives, for which he travels six to eight times a year. In July he will assume the role of president, representing the chapter at national meetings.

ON THE HORIZON

In other airport business, charter and private aviation also has seen new activity. It accounts for about 10 percent of the airport’s takeoffs and landings.

A deal has been struck for a new lease with TruAir, a local company that wants to expand into charter and other airport activities. TruAir will break ground on a new 14,000-square foot hangar in May.

Vine Jet, a corporate operator, is also expanding its facilities, adding about 5,000 square feet with 1,800 square feet of potential retail space.

Four parcels, totaling about 10 acres, will also go out for request for development soon.

As for additional airlines?

“We could handle adding a flight here or there, but we just don’t have any space to add another carrier. We’re at the point we have to say ‘no,’” Stout said. “This is it for a while.”

Cynthia Sweeney covers health care, hospitality, residential real estate, education, employment and business insurance. Reach her at Cynthia.Sweeney@busjrnl.com or call 707-521-4259.