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Hello, big birds 

Larger jets are likely coming to SLO Airport

One day, when the great recession is over and good times return, something different will appear in the skies above San Luis Obispo County. No, it won’t be a bird. It won’t be, sadly, Superman. It’ll be something far larger.

Jet aircraft, larger than have ever been used on a regular basis at the airport, will likely replace the little prop planes usually seen buzzing over the city.

In the future, the 30- and 50-seat turboprop aircraft that service small commercial airports like San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport will be replaced by 90-seat jets and even small Airbuses and Boeings like those used at far bigger facilities.

This is an inevitable result of industry consolidation and the rising cost of fuel, say airline industry experts, and it has little to do with the eventual growth in the economy. The shift will change both the experience of travelers and the business climate of the local airport.

The evolution in aircraft size has been a long time coming, said Mike Boyd, a Colorado-based aviation consultant. Many of the smaller commercial airliners—such as the 30-seat turboprop aircraft—are being phased out.

“Those planes were designed for the era of $18-a-barrel gas,” Boyd said. “When they get an overhaul, it costs $600,000, which isn’t a whole lot cheaper than the cost of a bigger airplane. If the costs are similar, which one do you think is going to lose out?”

Instead of scheduling smaller aircraft to make more flights, airlines are likely to use larger airplanes for fewer flights, which mean less crew costs and maintenance.

Though SLO city residents might think the roar of jet engines will diminish their fiercely guarded quality of life, the newest generation of jets is far quieter than its window-shattering ancestors. Plus, the airport already has a regularly scheduled jet flight run by US Air to Phoenix. Still, some jets are louder than most of the
small turboprop aircraft that use the airport today.

Richard Howell, the airport’s general manager, sits in an office in a tired-looking prefabricated building next to the small airport terminal building. The space is decorated with a vast collection of model airplanes, presenting a panorama of the history of flight. Rattling off aircraft types, seating capacities, and ranges, Howell sounds like a rabid baseball fan talking about his favorite players.

Yes, airlines will likely be using larger planes at the county airport, Howell said, waving his arms for emphasis as he sat back in his chair—but not because of anything to do with the potential growth of the airport. It’s an industry trend, he explained.

Most of the commuter airliners that use the airport are 30-seat Embraer Brasilias that fly to San Francisco and Los Angeles. A Bombardier CJR 900, an 86-seat regional jet, comes into SLO in the evening, spends the night, then flies to Phoenix.

“Instead of having all these flights a day, they figure we can use less airplanes, and economies of scale save the airlines money,” Howell said. “The airlines are looking for less cost and more efficiency.”

Howell, Boyd, and others say the SLO airport is in an ideal location for the airlines to use bigger airplanes. It’s a long way from any large city, but is centrally located in the community.

“We already take an 86-seat plane, so a jump to an Airbus with 125 seats is not a big jump,” Howell said. He was referring to an Airbus 319, a mainstay of airlines like US Airways, Virgin America, and United Airlines, which use them for everything from cross-state to trans-continental flights.

Howell said the SLO airport has had charter Airbus 319 and Boeing 737 land and take off with little difficulty. He hopes to lure airlines for future flights to Sacramento and perhaps Denver, but it’s easy to tell his visions for the future are tempered by what the recession has done to the airport.

The county had plans to expand the airport when the recession hit; airport passenger use dropped 40 percent in 2008.

“We went to the edge and stared into the abyss,” Howell said. The airport has made a comeback since then, growing in passenger use by 10 percent in 2010.

Howell said that whatever happens, he thinks the airport is ready for it. One thing that’s certain in the airline business is constant change and improving technology. With the increasing power and fuel efficiency of new aircraft, he said it’s possible that, in the distant future, flights from SLO might include Midwestern and East Coast destinations.

Though there will be more jets using the airport, Howell said, people won’t notice much of a difference.

“It’s nothing to be afraid of,” he insisted. “I don’t think anyone is going to be disturbed by having the airport as a neighbor as they were five years ago. Maybe less so.”

Contact Staff Writer Robert A. McDonald at rmcdonald@newtimesslo.com.

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