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Sonoma County airport sees slight passenger gains, precarious future

Commercial flights from Santa Rosa that were dropped this spring as the coronavirus pandemic ramped up have started to return as slightly more passengers take business and leisure trips, though the worsening pandemic threatens to limit routes through at least the end of the year.

American Airlines on Tuesday resumed its direct daily flight from Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport to Dallas/Fort Worth. The world’s largest commercial air carrier also restored on July 1 its nonstop flight to Phoenix on a daily basis rather than its reduced frequency of five days a week.

In addition, Alaska Airlines, which is the regional air hub’s primary carrier, reintroduced its direct flight to and from Portland on July 1, joining ongoing daily routes to Los Angeles, San Diego and Seattle. In an unexpected move, the Seattle-based airline for the first time also tacked on a second leg to the Portland route, traveling between Santa Rosa and Santa Barbara for an undetermined length of time, according to Sonoma County Airport Manager Jon Stout.

“Depending on how the community responds, Santa Barbara is something that could be around for a while,” he said. “From what I can tell, it’s going until at least August. But we’re not advertising any of the flights, because it’s weird that some things are open and some things are not. Parts of travel are still not considered essential, so we’re not advocating for or telling people to fly.”

Still, the longtime manager insists that the local airport is safe if people choose to travel. Following a mix of guidelines, restrictions and recommendations across the county, state and nation, Sonoma County has employed enhanced cleanings and sanitizing of high-touch areas throughout the airport since COVID-19 sapped air travel worldwide. The airport has laid out signs reminding passengers to maintain proper social distance, and also acquired 35,000 face masks to give to travelers who land or plan to take off and don’t have one with them, Stout said.

American Airlines has restarted fights to and from Dallas/Fort Worth out of Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport, on Wednesday, July 8, 2020. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)
American Airlines has restarted fights to and from Dallas/Fort Worth out of Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport, on Wednesday, July 8, 2020. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

The mitigation measures are becoming more important each day, he said, as more people are again taking to the skies to head out of town or visit Wine Country this summer. Airlines are also enforcing stricter mask requirements to board, with those passengers who refuse to wear a covering being documented and at risk of penalties as severe as being placed on a no-fly list, Stout said.

Dr. Sundari Mase, the county’s public health officer, on Wednesday called current local caseloads per 100,000 people “quite alarming.” The data point is one metric that could land Sonoma County on the state watchlist that would require shutdown of some indoor activities for at least three weeks. She acknowledged the county is “inevitably headed that way,” but said regardless of that reality, she advises against people hopping flights.

“I would be cautious about travel at this point,” Mase said. “There’s been a lot of transmission from, it looks like, people who have traveled, especially early on before travel restrictions. I still have the same recommendation to try not to travel, because travel is associated with potential exposure to COVID.”

Passengers from Dallas/Fort Worth arrive on an American Airlines flight at the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport on Wednesday, July 8, 2020. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)
Passengers from Dallas/Fort Worth arrive on an American Airlines flight at the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport on Wednesday, July 8, 2020. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

Many people seem to be taking the hint, and even with a recent uptick of travelers in and out of Sonoma County airport, passenger counts remain abysmal. Although the roughly 3,800 people who passed through in May represented almost triple the number compared to the airport’s worst monthly total on record in April, it was just 10% of the passengers compared to the same time last year. June numbers are due next week.

The prospects of traveler counts returning to past heights — including year-over-year record passenger growth the past decade — aren’t anticipated through the typically busy summer and fall, nor the upcoming holiday season.

“I think we’ve already had our busiest month of the year,” Stout said, referencing the more than 37,000 people who passed through Sonoma County airport in February, before the coronavirus took hold and crippled the U.S. airline industry. “I don’t think we’ll be back to normal before the end of the year. We’re more looking at it as a 12- to 18-month period. But it depends on how it plays out.”

On Wednesday, United Airlines announced it may need to furlough as many as 36,000 employees — the equivalent of half of its U.S. workforce — starting in October because of insurmountable revenue declines kicked off by a 95% drop in air travel nationally this spring. Rising numbers of COVID-19 cases across the country that stand to restrict travel even more could lead to this worst-case scenario, United officials warned, despite about $5 billion in bailout money the Chicago-based air carrier received between grant funds and a low-interest loans through the federal CARES Act.

Impacts from United’s ongoing financial woes are expected to be minimal at Sonoma County airport, Stout said. The airline is set to add back its daily route to and from San Francisco on Saturday and Sunday starting July 11, bolstering its current Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedule.

United’s direct flight between Santa Rosa and Denver, which was suspended in early April after launching a year prior to growing popularity, was initially scheduled to return in September, but may now be delayed, Stout said. An email request sent to a United Airlines spokesman went unreturned Wednesday.

Crews are building a $4 million passenger tent expansion and a permanent restroom facility to replace portable toilets at the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport, on Wednesday, July 8, 2020. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)
Crews are building a $4 million passenger tent expansion and a permanent restroom facility to replace portable toilets at the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport, on Wednesday, July 8, 2020. (John Burgess / The Press Democrat)

Progress continues over at the regional air hub, nevertheless. Work on a $4 million expansion of the airport’s tented passenger area is ahead of schedule and should be finished by the middle of August, Stout said. That will make way for a long-planned $30 million renovation of the airport terminal, the majority of which is being covered by federal grant awards, to get underway this fall, with a target for completion by summer 2022.

This article includes information from the Associated Press. You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

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