Drop in passengers amid expansion at Sonoma County airport due to COVID-19 pandemic

SANTA ROSA, Calif. (KGO) -- Certainly, you've seen the drop in airline stocks, and heard about how the number of passengers is down by as much as 95% during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

That's hurting large airports and regional ones, as well.

In Santa Rosa, the Charles Schulz Sonoma County Airport may take two years to recover.

Outside the terminal, signs point to taxis, gates, rental cars, and parking lots, but there are few people to read them. Inside, the terminal is almost empty, and as quiet as a library.

"There was a sigh of relief. We thought it would be super-packed," said passenger Euan Ashley.

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"I love getting my own row and not being stuck with another person in space," added Sherry Kwas.

Space? Not a problem. Passengers who do fly barely trickle out of the few arriving flights.

Their numbers tell the story. From 16 flights a day two months ago, now the airport sees six.

From 1,500 passengers every day, now the airport sees forty or fifty, total. "Before this hit, we would have had three or four planes here at noon," said airport manager John Stout, who pre-dates passenger service.

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We remember watching him help with bags before the the first commercial flight in 2007, followed by high hopes. Just last year, the airport won a 10 million dollar federal grant to improve a facility that needed to grow to accommodate increasing demand. What had been a growth trend for smaller regional airports has morphed into a battle for survival.

"If airports had a market before, the will come back," Stout said. "But, it may be on the end of the return to recovery. The airlines will start in big markets and move down to smaller ones," he said.

Meantime, at this rate, airport revenue to Sonoma County will drop by an estimated $4 million a year.

Every flight used to be worth $28 million in local revenue. Now, people are losing jobs. One restaurant in the terminal employed 29 people last year. Now, it is closed.

Even Hertz laid off four people. That's percent of the staff. "They didn't tell us until the day before. Then they had to let them go," said Matt Heywood behind the empty counter.

How times can change, and fast, especially in a jet age.

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