MIAMI – Yesterday, the no-frills Southwest Airlines (WN) first Boeing 737 aircraft touched down in Santa Barbara, carrying the inaugural load of passengers from Las Vegas.

Airways had the opportunity to be at the celebration and on board the inaugural one-hour and 15-min flight to Santa Barbara. With the new route, WN is poised to become the dominant carrier in the local market almost immediately after touching down at Santa Barbara Municipal Airport (SBA). 

Pre Flight

The terminals at Las Vegas McCarran International Airport (LAS) were pretty busy; we arrived at the airport in the midst of the early morning rush. When we got to gate B19 at terminal 1, there wasn’t much activity until 30 minutes before boarding time. WN Gate agents, managers, supervisors and public relations showed up at the gate with snacks, cups and poster boards for the flight. 

Gate agents set up tables and placed solo cups on the table for cup stacking games. The agents asked for passenger volunteers to play the games. While the games were happening, gate agents played music related to California (Katy Perry, 2Pac, Beach Boys) over loudspeakers while they played three games related to cup stacking. Gate agents also created poster boards for passengers to take their photos with. 

Southwest is the busiest airline at LAS. The carrier announced back in January that it would begin service between Las Vegas and the California cities of Santa Barbara and Fresno this month. WN’s initial schedule includes five regular nonstop flights: three to Vegas, one to Denver, and one to Oakland. The airline has stated that adding these routes improves spending in the region compared to automobile or train travelers.

For the second route mentioned above, WN will offer three daily flights each way between LAS and Fresno Yosemite International Airport (FAT) beginning April 25. Also worth noting, the airline returned yesterday to George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) after 16 years.

Boarding ‘California One’ and Arrival in Santa Barbara

As we boarded flight WN 1773, we were given snacks (cookies, chips, nuts). Once on board the airlines’ California One aircraft, the flight attendants played more music related to California and thanked us for being on board the flight. 

We took off parallel to the Las Vegas strip at 9:35 am local time, and flew over the Mojave desert and Victorville Airport Graveyard. 

As we landed in Santa Barbara at 10:49 am local time, local planespotters and news crews awaited our arrival. We taxiied the long way around the airport. Fire trucks met us on the ramp for a water cannon salute. Flight attendants thanked and welcomed everyone again for being on the first flight to SBA.

As we exited the aircraft and entered the terminal via Gate 3, the atmosphere changed. Local airport employees gave all the passengers little goodie bags. These goodie bags contained an external phone charger branded with the flySBA logo, a flySBA bag tag, and a couple of cookies.

The SBA terminal was packed with news crews and airport employees as they welcomed everyone to the airport. As soon as we exited the aircraft, passengers were already lining up to board the return flight back to Vegas. 

Local planespotters waited for the inbound Denver flight and waited for the outbound Las Vegas flight to depart.

Santa Barbara Competition is Nigh

“Right out of the gate,” WN takes the dominant spot in the Santa Barbara market if the carrier fills its flights even half full, SBA’s business development manager Deanna Zachrisson told news outlet Noozhawk last week.

However, Zachrisson said that the other airlines serving Santa Barbara — United Airlines (UA), American Airlines (AA), and Alaska Airlines (AS) — aren’t expected to keep their seats and are looking to increase capacity and routes starting in May and June. Still, WN will have about 40% of total available seats with its current timetable, “a greater share than any other carrier,” Zachrisson said.

In the area, beginning May 6, UA will add a third regular nonstop flight to Denver (DEN). With a single early morning flight, it will also restore regular service to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), which was suspended a year ago.

Beginning May 8, AA plans on its part to launch weekend (Saturday and Sunday) nonstop service from Dallas (DFW) to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport (ORD), most likely with Airbus A319 aircraft.

According to Noozhawk, UA hopes to start operation at ORD in June, depending on pilot and aircraft availability. Finally but not least, beginning June 17, AS plans to extend regular service to San Diego (SAN).

Airport Ready to Accommodate Incoming Capacity

It is expected then that the three other airlines will add capacity once air travel recovers to normal levels. To be able to handle that kind of capacity, Zachrisson stated that the airport, formerly known as Lindbergh Field, had to make some structural changes.

According to Zachrisson, WN does not charge baggage fees, and the airline has warned airport authorities that its travelers prefer to carry more luggage than other airlines, including big and heavy things such as surfboards, golf clubs, skis, and “even kayaks.”

To accommodate the increase in flights, the baggage claim area’s chute was extended to more than double its previous size, and a WN baggage service office was added.

Article written by Andrew Henderson and Helwing Villamizar.

Featured image, article photos and trip report: Andrew Henderson/Airways