Cake and customers: Airport turns 50, welcomes surge of travelers

Standing on each side of a white, three-tier cake, John Wheat, director for the Sacramento County Airport System, and Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, took a deep breath and blew out two candles that read “50.”

The pair stood in front of a large crowd gathered Saturday at the Sacramento International Airport’s B Terminal patio to celebrate the 50th birthday of the airport, which opened Oct. 21, 1967.

Partygoers included airport staff and area residents, who enjoyed free treats from local restaurants like Cafeteria 15 and Dos Coyotes Border Cafe, which operates an eatery out of the airport. Therapy dogs with the airport’s volunteer group Boarding Area Relaxation Corps donned birthday hats and other festive attire as they greeted attendees and travelers.

“Fifty years ago, this place did not look like this at all,” Matsui told the crowd. “That was an airport for the 20th century. This is an airport for the 21st century.”

Saturday’s ceremony comes as the Sacramento International Airport celebrates several recent accomplishments, Wheat said.

Last month, a national survey crowned the facility as the best airport in the nation after receiving the highest customer satisfaction ratings among American airports, The Sacramento Bee reported.

He also said the airport was on track to hit record-breaking passenger traffic by the end of 2017 or in 2018 after months of increased ridership.

September marked the 42nd consecutive month of increases in the number of passengers the mid-size airport handled. The airport also saw 10.4 percent more people using the facility last month than in September of last year, according to an airport news release.

Much of that success has been attributed to a wider selection of low-cost destinations and airlines the airport offers. A five-year deal approved in May lowered lease rates for airlines operating out of the airport, helping Sacramento International attract new air carriers and provide lower fares for passengers, he said.

The airport has added nonstop service to Baltimore, Newark, Spokane and Cabo San Lucas since 2016, as well additional airlines taking passengers to Salt Lake City, Boise, Chicago, Long Beach and San Diego.

Airport officials hope to expand nonstop services to New Orleans, Austin, St. Louis and Orlando next year.

“This was the year that we really turned the corner, in terms of finances,” Wheat said. “We can now focus on a lot of exciting things going forward.”

Like other airports, Sacramento International Airport faced hardships in the aftermath of the recession that hit a decade ago. The downturn in the economy began before the airport unveiled a $1 billion terminal and concourse modernization project in 2011 that improved the airport’s formerly outdated and overcrowded Terminal B.

The years that followed also saw fewer passengers willing to pay for air travel, he said.

Despite those hardships, the airport has been able to recoup in recent years, Wheat said. He stepped into his role in 2013, after 34 years in the airport industry, knowing fixing the airport’s finances would be his biggest challenge, he said.

“I had a level of confidence,” he said. “When you understand what the issues are, it’s nothing more than just putting a plan together.”

The airport anticipates celebrating another milestone at the end of the year, when a solar farm on two sites of the airport property is expected to be completed and fully operational. The solar panels are anticipated to provide enough power to meet a third of the electricity needs for the airport, said Laurie Slothower, an airport spokeswoman.

The solar farm will be the largest on any airport in California and one of the largest airport-based facilities in the country, she said.

Nashelly Chavez: 916-321-1188, @nashellytweets