Wednesday, July 23, 2008

City leaders briefed on airport progress


A local airport official briefed Santa Barbara city leaders yesterday afternoon on the state of the airline industry and progress on a new $63-million terminal project slated to begin construction next year.
The industry is suffering from a bit of a downturn at the hands of skyrocketing fuel prices, Airport Director Karen Ramsdell said, symbolized locally by the folding of ExpressJet Airlines — which is closing shop this September after operating for less than a year at Santa Barbara Municipal Airport.

Per passenger fuel costs have jumped from $70 last year to $299 this year, she said, and fuel now comprises 40 percent of airline expenditures. ExpressJet officials cited those costs as the primary reason for shutting down.
Nonetheless, Ramsdell expressed optimism about the future of flight in general, as well as the airport’s ability to weather the storm.
“People aren’t going to stop flying and airlines aren’t going to cease to exist,” she said.
Councilmember Iya Falcone said she is particularly brokenhearted about the loss of ExpressJet, which provided nonstop flights to and from San Diego and Sacramento since November 2007. She said she used the airline to travel to the state capital six times this year.
Falcone also cited concerns about the overall state of the industry and its potential impact on the local airport.
“I certainly do hope that we have airline service in this area [in the future] given that we’re spending upwards of $70 million for this new terminal,” she said.
While air service may look different, with fewer small carriers and changes to regional routes, Ramsdell said there is little chance of losing all flights out of Santa Barbara.
Based on a 2003 study, the airport can withstand a 25 percent loss of passengers and remain financially solvent, she said.
Due to the fact that passenger counts have grown faster than anticipated, she expects the ability to handle such a drop has remained static, if not improved, in the past five years.
“It is highly unlikely that we’ll lose air service,” Ramsdell said.
As far as flights to Sacramento, a popular route for business and government travelers, she said airport officials are contacting various airlines in efforts to reinstate that service.
“We are on it and we’ll do what we can,” she said.
Besides providing a general update on airport business, Ramsdell outlined headway made on a two-story, 60,000 square-foot terminal that officials hope to have fully operational by 2011.
The project has received final approval from the Architectural Board of Review, final design is complete, and building department officials are currently looking over the plans.
Site preparations, along with reconstruction of the aircraft parking ramp, should begin next month. Bid solicitation is planned for this October and construction is expected to kick off in spring 2009.
Ramsdell said the new building should be finished in 2010. In the final phase of the project, the historic 1942 terminal will be rehabilitated and moved into place near the new terminal building. A reconfigured loop road will be finished, along with any remaining construction, by 2011.
While the flight schedule and air service will remain undisrupted during construction, airport officials warned that changes to parking areas are necessary and urged the public to be prepared.
During the first phase, workers will close off the short-term parking lot, which is serving as the staging area for construction equipment and materials.
A portion of the existing long-term lot closest to the terminal will be used as short-term parking. Airport officials also plan to open the long-term lot near Fairview and Hollister avenues for use at any time, rather than just for overflow parking. Free shuttles will run to the terminal every 10 minutes.
“It’s just going to be a different way of getting around,” said Terri Gibson, an airport spokeswoman.
During the same timeframe, the lots will transition to automatic payment machines. Travelers will be able to pay with a credit card from their vehicle or feed cash to a machine on foot to pay for parking, Gibson said, noting that prices will remain the same.
The new terminal has been touted as being three times larger than the current space — offering larger waiting areas, more restrooms, expanded concessions, and more room for baggage, ticketing and security screening.
Ramsdell said the project is on track for a LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, silver rating for green building practices. A public art program is moving forward as well.
While design plans have come in $2 million over budget, Ramsdell said that includes alternatives such as multiple loading bridges and other items not essential to the building. Those can be added later or included if bids come in lower than expected.
Officials are also preparing to issue upwards of $38 million bonds to help finance the project along with federal grants.
More information about the project can be found at, where a webcam feed will be available during construction.

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