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