How Sonoma County airport's manager put Wine Country on airlines' maps

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Back in 2002, Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport was basically a runway for private planes.

Today, the airport provides service from four commercial air carriers — Alaska, United, American and Sun Country — and continues to add routes and more flights per day. Current destinations include Los Angeles, Orange County, San Diego, Portland, Seattle, Denver, Phoenix, San Francisco, Minneapolis and Las Vegas. Daily flights to Dallas-Fort Worth begin in June. Last year, the airport counted a total of 440,000 passengers. This year’s forecast is 480,000.

All the while, the airport, which has an $8 million budget this year, is in the midst of a five-year, $25 million construction project that will expand and improve the smallest commercial-service airport in the state.

The mastermind behind the airport’s transformation to becoming a strong economic engine is Jon Stout, who has served as airport manager for 17 years.

“When I was hired, air service was a big priority for the board of supervisors,” Stout said. “They wanted to get their (commercial) service back. United had left in October 2001, so being a bit naïve, I guess, I thought, ‘This is a great market. A lot of people want to come here. It shouldn’t be that difficult.’ It turned out to be difficult.”

Before joining Sonoma County Airport, Stout served as airport manager for nine years at Grosse Ile Municipal Airport in Detroit. In case it isn’t obvious, Stout likes flying.

“I went to school starting out wanting to be a professional pilot, but part way through school, I ran out of money because flying is really expensive, plus paying for college,” he said. “I didn’t want to get away from airports so I switched over to administration.”

Stout holds a bachelor’s degree in airport administration from the University of North Dakota and an MBA from Northwest Missouri State University.

As the newly minted airport manager in Sonoma County, Stout would come to find out that United left mainly because it wasn’t making money. The carrier had contracted SkyWest Airlines to run its flights in and out of Santa Rosa, but the way the contract was written, United came out on the losing end.

Undeterred, Stout went to work looking for another commercial air carrier whose strategic plan and business model fit with Sonoma County Airport. After intensive outreach and partnering with Santa Rosa Metro Chamber and Sonoma County Tourism, they put their sights on Alaska Airlines, along with its sister carrier, Seattle-based Horizon Air.

“We courted (them) for about four years,” Stout said. “We finally got them to sign up and start in 2007.”

Stout kept building from there, hiring a consultant, conducting surveys and pulling zip code data from the Department of Transportation to define the airport’s market, or “area of influence,” which goes as far south as San Rafael and up to Humboldt. That translates to about 1 million people served between Marin, Sonoma, Napa, Lake, Mendocino and Humboldt counties.

“So we look at it from time and distance,” Stout said. “San Rafael is the break because it’s about equal distance from Oakland and San Francisco or us.”

After about a three-year dry spell caused by the Great Recession, Stout got traction again in persuading more commercial air carriers to come on board with Sonoma County Airport. To date, he’s persuaded a total of four airlines that fly, and can connect, to multiple destinations.

“Compare the web of direct flights we have today, with what was available 10 years ago,” said Marlon V. Young, chairperson of the Sonoma County Aviation Commission and an attorney at Santa Rosa-based Merrill, Arnone & Jones LLP. “Jon has accomplished that by (1) regularly attending airline industry meetings to actively market the airport to the airlines, and (2) working hard to get the runway improvements that were completed several years ago.”

Stout said the runway extension, completed in the fall 2014, was key in pushing the airport to further growth. The project extended the runway from 5,100 feet to 6,000 feet, allowing regional jets to use Sonoma County Airport.

“In 2015, we were really pushing our longer runway with the carriers,” Stout said. He also attends several airline airport conferences each year, or what he describes as “airline speed dating,” providing an opportunity for about a 20- to 30-minute pitch to air carriers he’s selected. Stout said his average wish list is about 10 airlines, of which about seven or eight accept.

Now that Stout’s successfully wooed multiple carriers to his airport, he’s hoping the FAA will deliver good news next month, in the form of a $20 million federal grant to keep the construction work moving along.

Why does Stout think the airport should get the grant? What’s his pitch?

“We have 440,000 reasons,” he said. “Just based on the recommendations for the 440,000 passengers, we should be in the neighborhood of 60,000 square feet to 80,000 square feet. With the tent, we are at about 19,000 square feet.”

There may be a supplemental grant program next year the airport can apply for if it isn’t chosen for this year’s grant, Stout said.

Meanwhile, he’s keeping the discussions going for future opportunities with additional carriers and destinations. He mentions Delta Airlines as a possibility to crack the Chicago market, and Alaska Airlines for future service to Hawaii. Salt Lake City could also be in the mix.

Peter Rumble, CEO, Santa Rosa Metro Chamber, gives kudos to Stout for the airport’s ongoing successes.

“At the center of it is Jon,” Rumble said. “His steady and persistent drive forward has been invaluable to our airport and, by extension, to our local economy.”

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