Deanna Zachrisson, the Santa Barbara Airport’s business development manager, recently described the airport as eerily empty. “It’s pretty desolate,” she said. “It’s pretty quiet.” Since the nationwide COVID-19 lockdown, the South Coast terminal has seen its passenger count drop by a whopping 96 percent. And because the airport receives no money from state or local governments and instead relies on ticket sales to operate, the unprecedented reduction in air travel is wreaking havoc on its finances. “It’s a huge hole in our budget,” Zachrisson said.
Luckily, the Santa Barbara City Council recently approved a $9.5 million federal grant for the airport. The grant came as part of a larger bailout of airlines and airports around the country through the recently passed CARES Act. According to Zachrisson, $5 million will go to making debt payments, and the remainder will go to maintaining the airport’s facilities.
The federal aid is contingent upon the airport maintaining a base level of service by offering flights to Seattle, Dallas, Denver, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, and San Francisco. Several routes, however, are no longer available, such as those to Las Vegas, Sacramento, Portland, and Los Angeles. Zachrisson expects flights to Los Angeles and Portland to resume once demand justifies it. Additionally, the CARES Act mandates that aid recipients must maintain 90 percent of February employment levels.
Zachrisson has seen large crises before, starting her first airport job a year before 9/11 and experiencing the massive groundings that followed. “I was in disbelief that I would witness this twice in a career,” she said. Zachrisson does not see a post-lockdown recovery being as fast as the one after 9/11. “It won’t turn back on immediately,” she said. “It was like a light switch when everything turned off. But turning it back on will be like a dimmer switch, very gradual.”
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