Feb. 17--A record number of travelers used the Santa Barbara Municipal Airport last year, finally surpassing passenger levels that hit a high in 1997. More than 850,000 people flew in and out in 2005, beating the old record of 845,000.
The number of travelers using the Santa Barbara airport peaked in 1997 but then began a steady decline, hitting a low after the terrorist attacks of 2001. In recent years, passenger numbers have climbed slowly.
The recent record mirrors a healthy local economy, said Mark Schniepp of the California Economic Forecast.
"Activity at the airport is a barometer of what's happening with local businesses and residents, as well as tourists coming to our area," he said.
What's happening at the airport also mirrors increased travel throughout California and the nation since the terrorist attacks. "Demand for travel has made a gradual resurgence following 2001," said Terri Gibson, who handles marketing and communications for the airport.
Travel agencies have noticed the increase in people wanting to use the local terminal.
"I think the big reason for the increase is the routing. You can go from Santa Barbara direct to Phoenix or Salt Lake or Portland. It has really opened up the U.S. for us, making it much easier to fly compared to going out of Los Angeles or San Francisco," said Robin Sanchez of Carlson Wagonlit Travel-Your Travel Center in Santa Barbara.
Currently, the airport offers 44 daily departures to 10 international airports across the nation. Several routes have been added in recent years, among them a direct flight to Seattle, introduced in 2003, and another to Dallas, which debuted in April 2004.
"You can now go from Santa Barbara to Dallas, and from there get to the East Coast," Ms. Sanchez said. "Before, you had to go to Los Angeles, then Dallas."
Santa Barbara isn't the only airport that saw higher passenger counts last year. Other airports of similar size, among them Burbank and John Wayne in Orange County, posted similar results, said Mr. Schniepp. Even the large international airports had a good year in 2005.
San Francisco International Airport reported more than 33 million passengers last year, the highest number since 2001 but below its record, set in 2000.
At Los Angeles International Airport, the number of international passengers climbed to a record last year, surpassing a high set in 2000.
While 2005 was a banner year for the Santa Barbara airport, Ms. Gibson said she expects the passenger numbers to stabilize this year.
The airport terminal has likely reached its passenger capacity. Although the number of travelers has grown dramatically over the past three decades, the size of the terminal has not kept pace.
Plans are under way to expand the existing terminal and to consolidate several outlying structures into one larger facility. The project is expected to cost around $60 million.
A team has just been selected to design the new terminal to follow its current Spanish style. HNTB Architecture, based in Los Angeles, is the prime architect and Phillips Metsch Sweeney Moore in Santa Barbara is the associate architect. The design approval process is expected to take about two years, Ms. Gibson said.