After years of declining passenger counts brought on by outside market forces like skyrocketing oil prices, pilot shortages, and an economic slowdown, Santa Barbara Municipal Airport officials were happy to report this week that numbers are up. Passenger counts increased 14 percent between the summers of 2017 and 2018, bringing the airport to within striking distance of peak 2007 levels, when it was handling approximately 850,000 customers a year. That figure had dipped to below 600,000 in July 2016 before it started to climb again. Airport officials said they expected the upswing to last the rest of this year and into the next.
The current bump is attributable to a few things, they said. American Airlines brought back its direct flights to Dallas, and along with United Airlines, it has started using bigger planes. Low-cost carriers Frontier and Sun Country just started service out of Santa Barbara, with Contour scheduled to begin flying October 16. “We are absolutely ecstatic,” said Deanna Zachrisson, the airport’s business development manager, in a presentation to the City Council on Tuesday, October 2. Ten nonstop destinations are now on the menu, she noted.
Airport consultants told the council that, on average, Santa Barbara flights leave only 71 percent full. That’s because the airport’s fares are 37 percent higher compared to the rest of the state, so carriers are okay with the lower passenger counts. Santa Barbara’s steep ticket prices, they explained, are the work of the airlines themselves, who have sophisticated revenue-calculating systems that pinpoint multiple times a day what fares the market will bear. The price difference causes a full 64 percent of Santa Barbara residents in the airport’s service area to use other airports, mainly LAX, the consultants said.
Looking ahead, the airport wants to add more direct Bay Area service, bring back its flights to Salt Lake City, and connect to Chicago. A new advertising campaign encourages area residents to fly out of Santa Barbara and avoid Los Angeles traffic. “DON’T LAX,” it reads. “RELAX.”