Sacramento airport’s pitch: We’re easier to use than our rivals

The “Easy as SMF” campaign hopes to draw more travelers to Sacramento International Airport so airlines will expand routes.
The “Easy as SMF” campaign hopes to draw more travelers to Sacramento International Airport so airlines will expand routes. Sacramento Bee file

Sacramento’s airport is a lot grander since its billion-dollar expansion three years ago, but one thing hasn’t changed, officials say: It’s still easier to navigate than competing facilities in the Bay Area.

A $1 million advertising campaign, called “Easy as SMF,” markets Sacramento International Airport as the most convenient place to fly from in Northern California, with the goal of enticing residents on the eastern edge of the Bay Area to give Sacramento a try.

“We get a lot of customer feedback that it is an easy airport,” deputy director Amanda Thomas said. “We’re looking at the secondary market, where we can make the case (we’re) easier than other airports to get into, easier to park.”

The marketing campaign, while lighthearted, has urgency behind it.

The airport is carrying a billion-dollar debt from the ambitious 2011 expansion, making Sacramento one of the most expensive airports in the country currently for airlines, in per-passenger rents and fees. Passenger levels dropped dramatically during the recession, and the gleaming new Terminal B often has an empty feel. The airport also continues to suffer “leakage” of Sacramento-area residents who travel to Oakland and San Francisco airports in search of better fares and more destinations.

Airport officials say attracting more fliers will help them with what has become a critical chore, finding a way to reduce the fees on airlines and encourage route expansions. “The more we can show demand, the stronger case we have to go to airlines to add markets, and convince new airlines to (come here),” Thomas said.

Commercial aviation writer Joe Brancatelli, who runs the website, says Sacramento is faced with a chicken-and-egg conundrum: To attract customers, you need to add flights. But to get flights, you need more customers at the door.

Airlines are still in cost-savings mode, he said. Sacramento got a dose of that this winter when United shut down its only nonstop flight from the state capital to Washington, D.C., for three months, despite complaints from the region’s congressional delegation.

Sacramento officials report passenger numbers are on the rebound, up 5 percent in the last half-year, and they say they are optimistic they can push that trend forward by pitching the local airport on radio, television and social media as a comfortable and convenient alternative to the crowded Bay Area.

The “Easy as SMF” campaign, led by the Hiltachk Marketing Group, is a continuation of a six-year, $6 million marketing effort, and follows a previous pitch that billed the local airport as the gateway to Northern California and the world.

The current effort includes asking users to offer whimsical suggestions of what the airport’s SMF code might stand for – Smoothly Making Flights, Savor More Freetime, Smile More Freely, Shop-apalooza Meets Food-topia.

Although there are complaints about the automated people mover, and some confusion about where to wait to be picked up after flights, the airport generally receives good reviews from fliers online for its cleanliness, amenities and the overall feel. Passengers interviewed at the airport recently expressed positive reactions.

Peggy Cordray, who lives in Brownsville near Oroville, said she got lost when she first came to the airport after the expansion but is used to the facility now.

“I do like it now, because I know it,” she said this week, standing in the baggage area after a visit to family in Ontario. “I like the idea of the tram, or train, that you ride. Not as much walking, that’s a big help.”

The lack of crowds in new Terminal B surprises some fliers. Doug Martin, on business from Orange County, was snapping pictures of the red rabbit art piece.

“It’s relatively desolate compared to LAX, I’ll say that,” he said. “A lot cleaner, that’s for sure. I think it’s amazingly large for a relatively small city.”

Oakland International, the closest major airport to Sacramento, is not as modern, but offers more destinations with 150 daily flights compared to Sacramento’s 134 in peak summer season. And Oakland’s fares are often lower. Oakland airport officials say their numbers suggest almost 10 percent of Sacramento Valley fliers use the Oakland and San Francisco airports.

Oakland airport is adding amenities as well, said John Albrecht, the aviation marketing manager. Valley residents can access the Oakland airport now on Capitol Corridor trains with a direct link via a BART airport shuttle that opened in November. Oakland also periodically offers five days of free parking for people flying to Hawaii and Scandinavia, and it recently teamed with Marriott hotels to redesign the security checkpoint area to make it more relaxing.

Albrecht said his airport doesn’t feel it is competing with Sacramento, but he acknowledged fliers who live between the two airports do have a choice, and said some will choose Oakland because of lower fares.

That’s not always the case. Jennifer Haiar of Fairfield flew into the new Sacramento terminal this week with two children in hand and says she’s more than willing to pay higher fares to fly out of Sacramento.

“Sacramento is 10 times easier,” Haiar said, standing in baggage area with her infant son strapped to her chest. “It takes two hours to get to SFO or Oakland, and here it takes me 45 minutes. It is so much easier to park ... and easier to move about anywhere you please.”

Sacramento helped itself last week, signing a deal with a private developer to build a 117-room hotel between SMF’s two terminals, slated to open in 2017. The hotel will make it more convenient for out-of-town fliers who have early-morning flights, allowing them to stay at the airport the night before, airport officials said.

Airport marketers said they plan a telephone survey this spring and summer to see how the “easy” campaign is registering with potential fliers.

Southwest Airlines senior manager Mike Sikes, speaking to The Bee this week, lauded Sacramento’s “diligent” efforts to cut costs and improve the airport’s outlook, and said Southwest has talked about potential service increases, citing Texas and Baltimore as possible destinations.

“There are good possibilities out of Sacramento that could work,” he said. “There are things we are looking at.”

Call The Bee’s Tony Bizjak, (916) 321-1059.

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