Santa Barbara Airbus holds ribbon cutting, resumes service to LAX
There were more passengers leaving town on a Santa Barbara Airbus Thursday than there were passengers aboard an Airbus during the entire first week of the business’s opening in 1983.
This fact gave peace of mind to CEO Eric Onnen — who co-founded the Airbus that year and has remained with the company ever since — as he and his staff cut the ribbon Thursday morning and resumed services to the Los Angeles International Airport.
“We have been down for 409 days on our LAX schedule service,” Mr. Onnen said to the small crowd of city officials and leaders of the South Coast Chamber of Commerce gathered outside the airbus headquarters in Goleta to celebrate. “So we are very anxious to get back.”
Thursday marked day one of Santa Barbara Airbus resuming 10 trips a day to and from LAX. Mr. Onnen told the News-Press he still remembers when there were only five buses running in total in 1983, so after 409 days of being shut down, being able to reopen with 16 buses is still an accomplishment.
“It will take years to recover financially, so it depends how quickly the industry rebounds,” the co-founder said. “But if we were at 60% of 2019 capacity by the end of this year, we would consider that to be a success. That doesn’t begin to approach financial recovery — that just gets us to stability.”
He added that Santa Barbara Airbus, like many other businesses with a significant capital investment, will have to play catch up to replenish that capital for future growth and modernization.
However, he’s optimistic, and believes once international travel returns to normal numbers, his business, too, will start to see a return to normal.
“The travel industry has worked diligently all through (the pandemic) to create the safest experience they can for their customers, so it’s not perfect, but it certainly is very mindful of those concerns that anybody traveling should have,” Mr. Onnen said.
Current capacity on the buses is 30 to 32 passengers, compared to its usual 50 to 56 person capacity. Neither riders nor staff need to have received a COVID-19 vaccine to ride. Over the pandemic, Santa Barbara Airbus generated a #RollingResponsibly campaign to train staff on everything from masking to distancing to proper hand washing. Each bus also has a treated air system, and staff uses sanitizing foggers to disinfect all seats after each trip.
“Our staff is all trained on that prior to rehire, and then it’s what keeps everybody safe on the bus,” Samantha Onnen, the daughter of Mr. Onnen and the general manager of the company, told the News-Press. “Every 90 seconds, the air changes over in the bus and goes through a treated filter, so quite like the airlines, it’s treated air you’re breathing on the bus.”
Bob Ruppel pulled one of the buses around the parking lot during the ribbon cutting, and after 409 days of not being able to drive the bus, the longtime bus driver said he’s happy to be back behind the wheel.
“It’s great to be back,” he told the News-Press. “I really love my job. I’ve been doing it for probably 24 years, and they’re great people to work for. We do a lot of fun stuff and serve a lot of people going to the airport.
“It’s just a good job. I’m looking forward to getting back in the full swing.”
Kristen Miller, president and CEO of the South Coast Chamber of Commerce, said a few words to Santa Barbara Airbus staff before the ribbon was cut.
“We do this tradition of cutting a ribbon because it symbolizes something before and after or something outside and inside,” she said. “Even though we’re not cutting a ribbon on a brand new business in Goleta, we’re cutting a ribbon for your reopening and rebirth.”
The CEO said that the chamber sees a bright future ahead for economic recovery, and Santa Barbara Airbus is a large part of that effort to get the county back to economic prosperity.
“This is a momentous day to welcome back one of our most important businesses in our tourism economy and in our local economy with the Santa Barbara Airbus,” Ms. Miller said. “We feel so badly about all that we have lost during the pandemic — not just to the health crisis, but to the ensuing economic devastation in our community that has come about — but it’s businesses like yours who stayed together, stayed the course and are ready to come back and really pull us into recovery that we’re all so ready for.”
James Kyriaco, Goleta Mayor Pro Tempore, also attended the ribbon cutting at Santa Barbara Airbus right next to the Santa Barbara Municipal Airport. He referred to Santa Barbara Airbus as a “fixture of the Old Town community” that’s been “through thick and thin.”
“I know this part of Old Town. I love this part of Old Town. It’s an important and vital part of Old Town, and this business, Santa Barbara Airbus, is a critical part of making our local economy go,” Mr. Kyriaco told Airbus staff. “I’m so glad you were able to survive. I don’t know quite how you did it, but I’m very impressed and glad you did, and it’s just so important we set an example for all the other businesses out there that it can be done, that Old Town Goleta and Goleta proper is a good place to do business. We look forward to cutting this ribbon and hopefully having a lot more ribbon cuttings in the future.”
To learn more about the LAX shuttle or to book a trip, visit sbairbus.com.