Fall is the busiest time of year; airport anticipates more than 300,000 passengers departing this year
By Blake Ashley Frino-Gerl
SAN LUIS OBISPO COUNTY — Since November 2016, when the new terminal at the SLO County Airport (SBP) was established, the airport has continued to advance to meet the demands of travelers, as well as keep up with maintenance.
SBP Deputy Director of Operations Craig Piper oversees the airport’s operations and maintenance. 2019 was the start of its biggest year ever, with 275,000 passengers departing the airport. Since then, in 2022, the number exceeded by 4,000 more passengers. According to Piper, who has worked for the county at the airport since 2000, this year’s number of enplanements, as of the end of September, is “up to 20-21 percent” higher compared to last year.
Fall is the busiest time of year and the airport is anticipating more than 300,000 passengers departing from the airport this year. The higher demand has airlines responding with an increase in airplane size. In addition, with a shortage of pilots, airlines see the market as positive and want to serve it by using a larger aircraft while still meeting the demand.
Regional carriers operate smaller aircraft to and from hubs, such as San Francisco and Los Angeles, where larger aircraft are operated by larger mainline carriers, which provide numerous connection opportunities for passengers. However, larger aircraft are becoming of greater use in some regional markets, such as San Luis Obispo. American Airlines operates an Airbus A319, which has 128 seats, and the United Airbus A319, with 126 seats, while the regional planes have 70-76 seats.
SBP has eight destinations to which they offer direct flights: Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Dallas, Denver, and Phoenix, and beginning Dec. 14, Alaska Airlines will offer direct flights to Las Vegas. Looking at the leakage to other airports where SLO County residents have chosen to depart from has allowed for an increase in destinations and flights from SBP. Through a partnering effort, the additional destinations and flights are then marketed by Visit SLO Cal tourism in those market areas to broaden awareness for visiting SLO County.
In 1998, the airport saw a need for a larger terminal, but that didn’t come to fruition until 2015. Built in 1985, the original terminal (now rented by a flight school) is 14,000 square feet and the newest terminal is 57,000 square feet, which includes an open-air connector, but Piper says it often feels it has already been outgrown. Therefore, they have initiated a new master plan identifying the need for additional terminal place. They have a conceptual design on where they can expand for near term and long term, which includes additional passenger space, especially with regards to peak times.
Preservation is always imperative, just like the maintenance of a car or house, as Piper explains. They have completed a rehabilitation project of the terminal apron pavement, which includes the U-shaped concrete around the terminal and the adjacent asphalt — providing crack sealant and seal coating on asphalt to lengthen its lifespan. Parking positions have been adjusted and realigned to allow for larger aircraft, which includes possibly the 737 later this year, Piper notes. Additionally, they added a sealcoat on roadways in front of the terminal and the west side aircraft parking apron, taxiways, and crosswind runway to prolong life, as well as a rehabilitation of the main runway two years ago.
One of the big impacts in the airport’s growth is limited parking and the need to arrive at the airport sooner for departures. Piper says that parking, which can be paid by texting ParkSBP to 727563, at a kiosk or on the Flowbird App, is “landlocked for options” with regards to availability. They are working on increasing passenger parking because “lots are often maxed out,” he adds. The airport has acquired land on the other side of Broad Street, and hopefully will be able move rental car parking off of airport side so that there will be more parking for passenger vehicles. He said that due to often maxed-out parking, it is urged that passengers use other forms of transportation to get them to and from the airport. Lyft and Uber drivers provide a convenience, but Piper explains that there is a need for more drivers as there are fewer available during evening and early morning hours.
With larger aircraft in use, accommodating almost double the amount of passengers, the lines are longer. The airport now recommends arriving two hours before departure. Airlines close their check-in 30 minutes prior to departures, and so arriving so close to that time doesn’t allow for longer lines, checking-in and screening bags, and going through security.
Feature Image: Fall is the busiest time for the SLO County Airport (SBP), and with a larger amount of travelers expected to come through, officials are also bringing in larger planes. Photo courtesy of SLO County Airport