Santa Barbara Municipal Airport | Credit: Rick Doehring

Like many Santa Barbarians, I had not used our Santa Barbara Airport (SBA) in the last two years because of COVID-19. But, a granddaughter was born, so I’ve been going to SBA a lot recently. At least, I think I’m going to SBA. So much of the flying experience at our airport has changed that I’m not so sure.

The increased amount of congestion in front of the place makes it seem like you’re at the upper State Street Chick-fil-A. It now takes two ground traffic controllers — which is probably twice as many air traffic controllers as our airport has — to direct curbside traffic. And these guys don’t let you wait longer than three minutes. Apparently they assume you are picking up a parachutist. 

Long Term Parking is now a problem — there used to be open spots no matter how busy the airport was, but now it’s frequently full. This means you have to go to another lot which is a 30-minute round trip — so you drive from your home to the airport and then to a place that is farther away from the airport than your home. The absurdity of this suggests that SBA’s Website Guide was written by Franz Kafka. Now, by definition, we can fix this scarcity-of-parking problem: What’s the definition of an airport? Buildings surrounded by acres of flat space. What’s the definition of a parking lot? A flat space near buildings. Done.

Because of lack of parking, more people Uber to and from the airport which increases the demand for rides and raises their prices. And the airport bunches departures and arrivals together which makes SBA periodically overcrowded. The last time I was there, the Fire Marshal closed the upstairs gate area because there were too many people. Everyone had to line up downstairs in order to wait to go upstairs in order to wait in security lines in order to wait in boarding lines in order to wait to get on their planes in order to wait at the gates.

During all this waiting you could practice taking off your shoes. Because, on December 22, 2001, Richard Reid, the “Shoe Bomber,” tried to set his sneakers on fire and blow up a plane. Even though his ridiculous plan failed, millions of people for the last 20 years have been forced to remove their footwear before boarding a plane. So, as we take off our shoes, we can thank Richard Reid for one thing: He didn’t try to blow up his underpants.

Flying out of our airport has become more difficult. My United flight out of SBA was canceled because of the next day’s weather in my final destination city. The following day it was canceled again for the same reason. Which means United has managed to bring Nostradamus back from the dead — because someone in their company now has the ability to predict the exact weather in Chicago 24 hours in advance. And if you’ve ever spent any time in Chicago, you know that’s impossible — predicting weather in the Windy City is like rooting for its Cubs: you never know what you’re gonna get.

On another flight from SBA to Denver, we pulled away from the gate and the plane stopped. The pilot explained that there were “cranes on the runway, a natural occurrence in the area” and that we would have to wait until they left. I thought: we’re “waiting for cranes” — that is so Santa Barbara. Then the pilot corrected himself and said that the delay was caused by “construction cranes.” And I thought: can I really trust this guy to recognize Denver?

On yet another flight out of SBA we made it from the gate to the runway before we stopped. The plane then turned around and returned to the gate because — and all this is true — a tray table would not stay up. A flight attendant offered to use her duct tape to fix it, but American Airlines decided it was a Maintenance job. So we waited for a Maintenance man to use Maintenance duct tape, and then we waited while he filled out Maintenance paperwork.

On my return flight to SBA we had to return to the gate because of an engine problem. As they ran tests, the pilot came out of the cockpit and asked the attendant for “something sweet and savory, like Pringles.” Since when are Pringles “sweet and savory”? This made me again question the judgment of my pilot, doubts which became stronger as we later circled a fogged-in Santa Barbara and he announced that he “would try to follow another plane in.”

When asked who I would like to sit next to on a flight, my answer is: a retired airplane pilot. Sure, I’d love to talk to Oprah, but she wouldn’t know how to fly the plane in case the pilot choked on his sweet and savory snacks. I would specifically choose Chesley Burnett Sullenberger III, known as “Sully.” He performed two real miracles — though the Pope hasn’t acknowledged either one. His first miracle was that he landed a jet plane on the Hudson River. His second miracle was that he got Tom Hanks to play him in the movie. Circling blindly in the fog somewhere over the ocean with possible engine problems, I began to wish Sully the Third was sitting next to me. I bet he wouldn’t be eating Pringles.

Of course we landed safely. Otherwise this would be a much darker story. My favorite gate at SBA is Gate 6 because, when you walk across the tarmac from plane to building, you can re-enact that famous scene from Casablanca: striding side by side with someone as you disappear into the fog you can say, “Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” Just make sure that the guy next to you is named Louie and/or that he’s seen the film.

After a flight, getting your luggage at SBA takes longer now because of staff shortages, but it’s still a charming scene. We don’t have impersonal carousels; instead, we have a wise-cracking Wizard of Oz hiding behind a metal curtain commenting on, and then dispensing, our suitcases. As people wait for their baggage, someone might sit at the resident piano and begin playing the song from that other famous scene in Casablanca, and people begin to hum, “It’s still the same old story, the wait for bags and glory,” all of which you can’t deny, and, as everyone knows, the last line in that verse describes what really happens in airports: “time goes by.”

I was glad to be back in Santa Barbara, even if the Uber prices had gone up. Here’s a trick — which you can learn in every line at any airport — just wait. In 15 minutes, the demand will lessen, the price of the ride will go down, and you can afford to go home again.

Author’s note: Although all of the described events actually happened, your experience at SBA may differ. I certainly hope so.


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