Under cloudy skies, a United Express jet touched down at Sonoma County’s airport Thursday following a 17-minute flight from San Francisco, marking the return of one of the world’s largest airlines to Wine Country and the continuing expansion of the regional airport.
With United’s addition, Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport now offers 13 daily flights from Sonoma County on three major carriers. In addition, Allegiant Air offers a weekly Las Vegas turnaround and Sun Country Airlines in August is scheduled to start service to Minneapolis.
For Seattle resident Juanita Stewart, who stepped off the arriving San Francisco flight onto the tarmac Thursday, all that mattered was the plane, a Bombardier CRJ-200 jet, was seven minutes ahead of schedule.
Stewart had booked the flight to Sonoma County, with connecting service in San Francisco, using the travel search engine Expedia. She said the last leg of the journey was unremarkable in a good way.
“It was on time. It was a short flight. And I didn’t have to drive,” Stewart said, who is here to visit family.
When United Airlines discontinued similar service in 2001, it left a void in commercial passenger service in Sonoma County that would not be filled until 2007, when Horizon Air debuted flights to Seattle and Los Angeles.
United’s revived service offers three daily departures from Sonoma County, at 6 a.m., 2:05 p.m. and 5:20 p.m.
Arrivals are scheduled for 1:35 p.m., 4:40 p.m. and 11:15 p.m.
The return to Sonoma County comes at a fraught time for United, after glaring public stumbles that included the forced removal of a doctor from an aircraft in April that drew international outrage and the death of what may have been the world’s largest rabbit on one of its flights. A United spokeswoman Thursday referred questions about the blunders to the airline’s website, which outlines steps the airline is taking to try and improve customer service.
Jon Stout, the Sonoma County airport’s general manager, said United recognizes “it has a very big problem” with customer service, and that from what he’s seen, the airline has “been trying to correct it.”
At 66 miles, United’s local flights to and from San Francisco — operated by SkyWest Airlines — are the shortest by distance in its vast network. Nevertheless, the route has major significance for Sonoma County and its continuing quest to boost air traffic and the local economy, competing with much larger rivals in San Francisco, Oakland and Sacramento.
Passengers often can find cheaper flights and more direct connections from larger airports. But Sonoma County airport officials stress that’s not always the case, and in any event, once other costs are factored in, such as driving and parking, flying out of Sonoma County can be the more attractive option.
The airport’s new website includes a calculator comparing the cost of flying out of Sonoma County versus other regional airports. The program factors in the cost of ground transportation, parking and other expenses not tied to the price of fares.
“We want people to think about other factors than just the basic amount of the ticket,” Stout said.
Chris Noceti did that calculation while weighing a business trip to Santa Barbara. Instead of driving to San Francisco, Noceti, a finance worker, opted to fly Thursday from the Sonoma County airport, near his home outside Windsor.
“Instead of a two-and-a-half-hour drive to SFO, I’m here in five minutes,” Noceti said. “I can kick back in SF for a couple hours and get some work done.”
Noceti felt the $430 cost for the round-trip journey was a reasonable amount to spend, once other costs such as parking were factored in.
Joseph Carniglia of Petaluma also felt the $110 he spent for a one-way ticket to Vancouver on United was worth it. He said his other choice was to take a flight on a different airline that included a stop in Los Angeles — a longer way in the opposite direction of where he was headed.
“I didn’t want to wait in an airport for 5 hours,” Carniglia said.
Both men waited for their flights Thursday in the new passenger and gate area that is part of the airport’s ongoing expansion. The county’s planning agency gave final approval for the tentlike structure to open to the public Thursday morning, hours prior to the United Express jet touching down, according to Stout.
The waiting area cost $1.4 million, which was $700,000 over budget. Stout said the manufacturer’s original estimate for the work did not include lighting, heating and air conditioning, security systems and other necessary features.
However, Stout said he was so pleased with how the waiting area turned out that it may become a permanent fixture for the airport. He said future plans call for expanding the area by an additional 4,000 feet.