SAN LUIS OBISPO – San Luis Obispo is one of the largest cities along California’s Central Coast. Located halfway between the San Francisco Bay Area and the Los Angeles Area; it is a gateway to Central California Coast and tourist attractions like Pismo Beach, Hearst Castle, and the Central Coast Wine Country.
Also, San Luis Obispo is home to California Polytechnic State University, which increases the population of the city from 45,000 to 65,000 for nine months of the year.
San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport (SBP) serves the city and its surrounding suburbs in the county. Although the airport is small, it has a rich aviation history.
It has had the distinction of being home to the headquarters of two airlines. In 1969, Swift Aire Lines began service with a base at SBP. They flew throughout California mainly with Fokker F27s and Nord 262s.
After a merger with their rival, Golden Gate Airlines, Swift went bankrupt in 1981. However, just after that, Wings West Airlines took over their headquarters and maintenance base.
Wings West was another independent commuter airline in California, serving many routes up and down the Golden State with Fairchild Metroliners and Saab 340s. In 1987, they were purchased by AMR Corp, the parent company of American Airlines, after a year of code sharing with them.
After the buyout, they began flying regional routes out of Los Angeles (LAX) under the American Eagle brand name. In 1991, they also began flying regional routes out of the newly created hub in San Jose (SJC). In 1998, they merged with Simmonds Airlines to form American Eagle Airlines, known today as Envoy Air.
Over the past few years, the population of San Luis Obispo has grown due to the many companies now calling the city, home. Because of that, the traffic at the airport has skyrocketed. Currently, the airport has a 21.2% increase in passengers compared to the same time in 2016, and a 40.1% increase compared to 2015.
This spike in passengers is largely due to the addition of flights to two sought-after destinations in 2017: Seattle (SEA) on Alaska and Denver on United. A Horizon Air ERJ-175 operates the Seattle flight, and a SkyWest Airlines CRJ-200 operates the Denver flight.
These are both in addition to existing service to LAX and San Francisco (SFO) on United (SkyWest) CRJ-200s and to Phoenix (PHX) on American (Mesa Airlines) CRJ-900s.
Average load factors for all flights at the airport are around 85%–great for a market of that size. Airlines want to add more seats to the market, but they can’t. Why? Because there’s not much room. The former terminal is only 12,500 sq. ft. There were just enough check-in desks for two airlines.
When Alaska Airlines started in the Spring of 2017, both United and American had to relinquish part of their desk space to accommodate the Seattle-based carrier. The security checkpoint had such few lanes that the lines were known to be over 300 ft. long.
There were only small boarding gates and a waiting area small enough to match. Usually, just two planes could fit on the ramp, but the airport did some “creative placement” and managed to fit two CRJ-200s and a CRJ-900 on the ramp during RON hours.
United Airlines was supposed to use an ERJ-175 for their Denver flight, but could not fit it on the ramp, so they had to downgrade the flight to a CRJ-200.
The airport administration planned well for such an increase in service. In 1998, a site just a few hundred feet to the southwest was determined to be the spot for a future terminal.
However, it took 17 years to break ground on a new terminal, starting in 2015. On November 2nd, San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport opened to travelers throughout the Central Coast.
This terminal is a vast change from the original terminal. The terminal is 56,000 sq. ft., a 350% increase in area over the previous terminal. In fact, the check-in and baggage claim areas alone are larger than the entire old terminal.
All check-in desks are common-use and will be able to fit up to four airlines. A few more desks can be added in the event of a terminal expansion.
The airport also features various art displays, reminding travelers of different aircraft. Near security, the airport has installed a sculpture made from the horizontal stabilizers of a Gulfstream GII.
Besides, the information desk is made from the cowling of a GE CF-6 engine, said to be from an early model Boeing 747. MotoArt made both pieces of artwork in El Segundo, CA.
After you move through security, you will go back outside. The new terminal has a courtyard between the pre-security and gate lounge areas. The courtyard features a rock and plant formation to mimic the local flora.
It also contains the service animal relief area, satisfying a mandate by the ADA. The courtyard also serves a practical purpose. If the airport needs to expand its gate seating area, they can easily enclose the courtyard instead of extending the terminal further out.
The gate area itself is a standalone building connected via the courtyard, remarkably similar to Palm Springs’ (PSP) regional terminal. For the first time, there will be a small restaurant post-security. In the previous terminal, there was only room for a few vending machines.
The restaurant will focus on local food and drink. The terminal is comprised of six gates, a 200% increase over the previous terminal. Since all of the current flights are operated with regional jets, it is advantageous to have multiple ground boarding gates.
Of the six gates, four will only feature doors out to the ramp, where passengers can board via airstairs or turbo ramps. Two of the gates will feature jetways, something new for the airport. In fact, the jetways have glass siding, which is very rare in the United States.
These gates will be able to handle up to a Boeing 737-800 or an Airbus A319, both of which would be the largest scheduled aircraft the airport has ever seen. However, with the direction that airlines are going, the airport believes that they could come sooner rather than later.
They cite Santa Barbara (SBA), as an airport of comparison. SBA is located just 70 miles down the road but has a population of more than 90,000, double that of San Luis Obispo.
Historically, SBA has only received regional service, just like SBP. But, in the last few years, Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, and United Airlines have all begun mainline service to SBP, mainly on A319s and B737-800s.
Even though the airport hopes to see mainline service shortly, they would prefer higher frequency, and added destinations, which they realize must come at the hands of a regional carrier.
They mention two airports as a focus for expansion. The first is Portland (PDX), likely on a Horizon ERJ-175, similar to the existing SEA service. The second airport is Dallas/Ft. Worth (DFW), likely served by an American Eagle ERJ-175 or CRJ-900.
The airport hopes that this service will better connect San Luis Obispo with East Coast and Southern USA, which are specialties of DFW.
Although SBP can easily be overshadowed by the likes of the nearby SFO and LAX, I expect that we will hear a lot more from this airport in the near future!