Two years after United Airlines shut down its flights out of Santa Maria Public Airport, the airport district is attempting to attract commercial airlines to expand service.
With only one regular commercial route to Las Vegas, the airport has been making overtures to large carriers in the hopes of establishing more routes to better serve the local community.
On Wednesday at the Radisson Hotel, airport General Manager Chris Hastert spoke about recent meetings with major airlines and possible new service routes during a luncheon hosted by the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce and Committee to Improve North County.
Additionally, AirFest Committee Chairman Chris Kunkle gave an update on the Central Coast AirFest, which is scheduled in October.
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Hastert said Santa Maria’s proximity to other regional airports in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo is the biggest challenge to overcome in expanding air service for the city.
“So when we meet with the airlines, which we do regularly, part of the conversation is how are we going to market our flights — if they start them — and not take away from Santa Barbara or San Luis Obispo,” Hastert said.
Another challenge to adding new flights is the shrinking number of airlines serving the United States, Hastert said. While the domestic market previously had dozens of airlines, corporate consolidation in the form of acquisitions and mergers have significantly reduced the number of competitors.
“Now the top five airlines control approximately 80 percent of the whole domestic market,” Hastert said. “What does that mean for Santa Maria? It means that any new hub service is likely to come from one of those airlines and those airlines are already serving our neighboring communities, which makes it a little bit difficult.”
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Hastert said one thing the airport can offer airlines is a $1.48 million incentive plan from the Small Community Air Service Development Program grant for eastbound routes.
“[The grant] would be for either Salt Lake City, Denver or Phoenix,” Hastert said.
Currently, Santa Maria airport is having conversations with American about a Phoenix route, United about San Francisco and Denver routes and Allegiant about adding a route to Mesa, Arizona.
Denver is about the farthest city Santa Maria Public Airport would seek to serve, Hastert said, with Salt Lake City, Oakland, Phoenix, Seattle and Portland all potential options.
In addition, Hastert said the airport was looking into opportunities to capitalize on land owned by the airport, using as an example the regional FedEx center, a 182,000-square-foot building built on 21 acres of airport-owned land. The land, which was previously occupied by the Moles family-owned Sunset Ridge Golf Course, is in the process of being sold to the building's developer, Scanell Properties.
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“We came with a win-win situation to have retirement for the Moles family furthered with a really nice development for Santa Maria. It shows how a developer can come in, work with the airport and really get something big done.”
Airport officials also provided an update on the Central Coast AirFest, a two-day air show scheduled for Oct. 6-7 at the Santa Maria Public Airport. The air show is the first show since the Museum of Flight-organized “Thunder Over the Valley” show was grounded three years ago.
Kunkle said the show will feature the Royal Canadian Snowbirds team in the headlining act. Other acts will include demonstrations of military aircraft, like the C-130, C-17, F-15 and F-18, among other planes.
The show, which is expected to draw around 25,000 people for each of its two days, will also feature craft beers provided by Redlands-based Hangar 24 brewery and food trucks.
For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.centralcoastairfest.com.
Razi Syed covers Santa Maria City Government for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @razisyed