Addressing the challenges of flying from Santa Barbara (published in March of 2009 in the SB News Press)

The current economic recession has placed extraordinary pressure on airlines across the board to reduce operating costs and increase profitability.  As a result, like many smaller cities, Santa Barbara is losing some service routes.  In fact, over the past year or so, Santa Barbara has lost several key airline routes, including Santa Barbara to Dallas / Fort Worth, SB to San Diego, and briefly, SB to Sacramento (the Sacramento route was picked-up by Horizon Air).  The Sacramento and San Diego routes were lost when Express Jet failed, and we are losing the Dallas / Fort Worth route, starting April 1, 2009, because American Airlines has cut its fleet, and can redeploy its MD-80 jet from Santa Barbara to another, more active route and increase profitability. 

For local businesses, the loss of these routes may only cause some minor discomfort, as frequent travelers may no longer have the option of non-stop flights to certain locations, but instead may have to deal with the frustration and time delays of extra stops and layovers.  One added consideration and consequence of these lost routes may be an eventual increase in fares, as the same number of business travelers could be chasing a reduced number of available seats.

Santa Barbara lost service to Dallas / Fort Worth once before, in the early 1990s, as well as losing service to Chicago, briefly offered by both American and United.  Service to DFW was reinstated, but now we are losing it for a second time.  Although it is possible that this route will come back once the economy improves, Terry Gibson of the Santa Barbara airport is hopeful, but not confident, that we will see it return.  Gibson states that about eighty percent of total travelers to DFW are connecting to other destinations, and therefore can use other hubs like Phoenix, Los Angeles, or Denver to get to their final destinations.  However, for companies like Mentor, which has a manufacturing operation in Dallas, the convenience of a non-stop flight to Dallas will no longer be an option.  Although costs for the trip are not likely to change, the time and aggravation may increase substantially for Mentor employees flying to DFW after April 1st.

The key problem with the DFW route is that there are not enough travelers per day to support enough frequency for this route to be profitable.  American was only able to make one round trip per day; an inefficient use of their expensive aircraft.  To the extent that they can redeploy this plane to a busier market where they can make several round trips per day, their profitability will increase significantly from this aircraft, so it’s easy to understand their motivation to drop the route.

Kent Harris of QAD, a company which requires extensive travel for its operations, states that their primary destinations are east coast cities and international locations, so the loss of the DFW route is not a substantial problem.  However Harris does stress that the loss of flights to one of the four main hubs QAD employees use—Los Angeles, Denver, San Francisco, or Phoenix—would likely cause some problems.

David de L’Arbre, Chief Operations Officer and co-owner of Santa Barbara Travel, believes it will become increasingly important for companies with regular travel needs to understand how best to navigate the complexities of traveling from the Santa Barbara airport.  According to de L’Arbre, a keen understanding of seasonal weather conditions that affect the various hub destinations, along with knowing how much time it takes to make connections, can vastly improve a traveler’s odds of arriving on time at their final destination. 

“Summers can be challenging if flying through Phoenix, as the heat can cause airlines to limit ground crew exposure, as well as thinning the air to a point where jets cannot generate enough lift to take-off when heavily loaded.  Poor winter weather in Denver can cause delays or diversions, due to snow or visibility, while San Francisco is always questionable due to fog or high winds, that may result in the closure of one of two runways, or a reduction in the number of flights allowed to take-off and land”, says de L’Arbre.

One way for local companies to increase their efficiency with regard to travel, and potentially reduce costs, is to work with a professional travel agency.  According to de L’Arbre, a travel agent can help companies in four main ways:

First, and most basic, is in fulfillment, meaning making reservations and issuing tickets to travelers.  Corporate travelers need to have confidence that they will receive their tickets on time, and that the tickets will be accurate.  Working with a company’s travelers, the agent must be responsive, reliable, and timely, so that travelers can accomplish their business goals without worrying about trip details. 

The second way a travel agent can help companies improve the efficiency of their travel is by negotiating discounts on airfares, car rentals, hotels and other travel services.  Larger agencies will tend to have more clout, which normally translates to better discounts for their clients. 

Third, agencies can assist companies by capturing and consolidating data about the traveling habits of their employees.  By understanding how employees travel, companies can better manage their travel costs by looking at advance purchase trends, hotel and rental car costs, and by benchmarking fares.  Using data to negotiate discounts is critical in achieving cost savings.

Finally, larger agencies like Santa Barbara Travel offer consultative services for companies spending between $100,000 and $5 million per year on travel, which include working directly with employees and management to educate them on ways to improve their travel efficiency.  Selecting preferred vendors, having a written travel policy, reviewing travel expenditures and consolidating hotel and meeting spending all generate incremental savings and efficiencies.  

Although the recent loss of the DFW route does not appear to be a major negative for the local business community, it highlights the need for local companies to understand their travel needs and to work to maximize their efficiency when using the Santa Barbara airport.  Through this increased understanding, and perhaps with the help of a professional travel agent, local companies may be able to save some money, and more importantly get their employees to where they need to go, on time, and with a little less frustration.

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