After winning a string of new flights, Sacramento International Airport is losing its only nonstop to the Washington, D.C., market and to Newark Liberty International Airport in the New York City area.
United Airlines said in a statement to The Bee that it is suspending service from Sacramento International Airport to Dulles International Airport in Northern Virginia from Jan. 9 through March 30.
What happens after that is unclear. United’s flight schedule shows a resumption of the services on March 31 but an airline spokeswoman would not confirm that the flights would be resuming.
No other airline from Sacramento flies nonstop to Washington, D.C., area besides United. Passengers to the New York City area still have a daily nonstop on JetBlue Airways from Sacramento to John F. Kennedy International Airport.
Airline analyst Robert Mann said he wouldn’t be surprised if the service resumes, noting that Dulles and Newark are big United hubs that the airline uses to channel passengers to Europe and Africa during the peak summer travel season.
“There’s not as much demand during the winter,” said Mann of the R.W. Mann & Company, Inc.”Traffic demand across the Atlantic Ocean is fairly seasonal. United just doesn’t rely on local traffic on those routes.”
Despite the United announcement, new flights have been announced to other destinations over the last few month at the Sacramento Airport.
Air Canada started service to Toronto in June, American Airlines to Austin in May along with Spirit Airlines, which began its service in July.
Meanwhile, Southwest Airlinesin March started two times a week service to Nashville on Saturday and Sunday. The airline will also begin service to Orlando on March 9, but just once a week on Saturday.
“These additions will add thousands of new seats for ... Sacramento every week and provide further justification to add six to eight new gates as part of the SMForward program,” said Stephen Clark, deputy director, commercial development for the Sacramento County Department of Airports.
The $1.3 billion airport renovation project, scheduled to be completed in 2028, would also add a new pedestrian walkway in Terminal B, a new parking garage, a rental car center and a new transportation center, in addition to the new gates.
Passengers back at airport
Sacramento International has largely recovered from the COVID-19 pandemic, even though nonstops to Baltimore and Philadelphia have yet to be restored, airport officials said.
“We expect these to return soon,” said Clark.
The airport forecasts more than 13 million passengers will travel through it by the end of 2023, which is in line with pre-pandemic numbers.
Airport officials said passenger growth should be 4.3% annually for the next eight years.
Cindy Nichol, the Sacramento County Department of Airports director, said the airport is struggling to handle the post-pandemic passenger demand.
“I hear about this every week, if not every day,” she told the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors earlier this month.
The airport currently has service to 45 nonstop destinations. The key problem is “passenger leakage” — the number of people who live in the Sacramento Metropolitan Area but end up going primarily to San Francisco International Airport because of more nonstop destination choices or lower fares.
The leakage rate was estimated around 20%, but the numbers haven’t been updated since before the pandemic. Airport officials said they expect to do a new study of the leakage rates in the next two years.
Airline analyst Austin Horowitz at consulting firm ICF International Inc.said that many Sacramento area residents end up traveling to San Francisco for their flights is not surprising.
“You have a lot more flight options, you have a lot more competition which means that fares are lower, so if the dollars you’re going to be spending is your number-one priority that’s going to shift you looking to San Francisco,” said Horowitz.
He said more competitors on a route usually lowers the fare available to consumers.