Airport celebrates inaugural flights with joyous fanfare
Southwest Airlines and the Santa Barbara Airport welcomed the inaugural Southwest flights with a flourish Monday morning after much anticipation from the local tourism industry.
The first Southwest flight arrived from Las Vegas, and water canons created an archway to greet the plane, a Boeing 737. The aircraft was decked out with a bear, and airport personnel said, “It’s ‘California One.’”
Inside, red, yellow and blue balloons announced the special occasion, and airport staff members handed out Southwest goodie bags and SBA sugar cookies.
The doors at the gate opened, and travelers entered wide-eyed to a crowd of reporters and tourism professionals.
“It’s exciting,” said Carla Kennedy, an Arizona native who flew in with friends for a birthday. “I’ve never been on an inaugural flight before.”
The group of friends, one of whom is a Southwest employee, chose the inaugural flight intentionally and was not disappointed.
Aboard the plane, the passengers played games and ate special snacks for the occasion.
“We’re so grateful to Southwest Airlines for recognizing the potential and the possibilities in our community — and certainly the undeniable appeal of Santa Barbara as a leisure travel destination,” Kathy Janega-Dykes, president and CEO of Visit Santa Barbara, told the News-Press. “This partnership has been in the making for a number of years, and we are thrilled to see it come to fruition.”
The airport and Southwest have been anticipating the partnership for many seasons, and the pandemic allowed Southwest to dedicate a couple routes to the American Riviera.
“Santa Barbara has been on our radar even though it hasn’t been on our map,” Brad Hawkins, senior advisor of communication at Southwest, said. “So we’re thrilled to be able to give people who live locally access to Southwest without a drive into Burbank or off the coast to the Bay Area.”
He mentions the “Southwest Effect,” a well-known trend in the travel industry that when Southwest enters a market, fares dip and traffic increases.
“We look for opportunities, where airfares are higher, and we do some lower fares, stimulate traffic and connect new places,” he said.
Southwest executives first visited the Santa Barbara Airport in November.
“We knew that once they were here in November, we were really hopeful that they’d show up,” said Angelica Daus, airport marketing coordinator for the city of Santa Barbara.
Lockdowns and quarantine freed some of Southwest’s fleet to explore new areas, but the change will outlast the pandemic.
“Our decisions to add right now are based on the long term. So we don’t want to come in and out of the community,” Mr. Hawkins said.
Ms. Daus compares the partnership to a marriage, with the hopes that it will last forever.
“We feel really good about bringing this service into our community,” she said. “This is gonna bring a lot of economic vitality, a lot of opportunity to our community members to get places.”
Hotels were booked during spring breaks, but the industry still has “a ways to go,” according to Ms. Janega-Dykes.
“I think the recovery is going to take longer than we expected. But we’re certain that Santa Barbara is such a good place to welcome back visitors,” she said.
Unemployment is still high in the hospitality business, as hotels struggle to book banquets and conferences.
But she’s optimistic as travelers voyage out after getting vaccinated.
“Southwest has such brand loyalty,” she said. “And so this opens up so many opportunities to invite new people to our community, as well as welcoming back those visitors who may not have been here since the start of the pandemic.”
Value-seeking travelers are loyal to Southwest for its competitive rates and two free checked bags.
Nipomo residents Steve and Tammy Becker booked a trip for the first Southwest flight out of the Santa Barbara Airport. They’re flying to Las Vegas to see family, and they have more trips booked to see loved ones this spring.
“Southwest is our favorite airline in the world, so I was glad to see them coming,” Mr. Becker said.
He retired at the start of the pandemic, a milestone the couple always planned to travel after. But they waited until they were vaccinated to venture out.
“This has been a long time coming, so this is exciting,” he said.
Mrs. Becker agreed, emotional about seeing family members once again.
“It’s been a long, long year,” she said.
Ms. Daus anticipates more good news soon as the airport plans ahead, including flights to Chicago.