When the Santa Maria Public Airport Board of Directors meets Thursday to discuss the airport’s 2012-13 budget, it will essentially be filing a flight plan for the facility’s future.

The airport’s $3.9 million operating budget — excluding depreciation —  is up just 3 percent over last year, but it will be for a vastly different and busier facility.

The main runway at the airport now measures 8,004 feet, which is 1,700 feet longer than a year ago. The $12 million extension has helped the airport land a new commercial service and a contract with the U.S. Forest Service as an air tanker reloading base, said General Manager Chris Hastert.

Allegiant Air announced this month it would begin weekly flights to Honolulu from Santa Maria in November, and in October 2011 the Forest Service reopened its air tanker reloading station. Hastert said it’s unlikely either service would have happened without the longer runway.

“The airport overall, we’ve been making progress on a lot of small projects and a lot of big projects that are really bringing us into the future,” Hastert said, adding the runway extension and upgrades to the navigational aids are the most notable improvements. “Hawaii is definitely one of those destinations that wouldn’t have been possible with our old 6,300-foot runway.

“In addition to that, the runway also helps with the Forest Service tanker base. It’s back to being a permanent tanker base. It’s staffed and we’re happy to be working with them and bringing in larger aircraft even up to the DC-10 which is working out of Victorville.”

The runway extension project siphoned off money from the airport’s reserve funds, Hastert said, but even so it was a bargain. Because the project was funded with Airport Improvement Program grant money, it only cost Santa Maria around $600,000.

The runway construction and associated expenses dropped the airport’s reserve fund to approximately $5.6 million at the start of the current fiscal year. But Hastert said the 2012-13 budget projects adding approximately $700,000 to that fund. The fiscal year begins July 1.

The board meets at 7 p.m. in the administration building.

Some of the capital improvement projects budgeted for next year are improvements to help the airport handle the added passenger traffic Allegiant’s Hawaiian service will bring. A new passenger boarding ramp that will reach the cabin door of a Boeing 727 and additional seating for the terminal are part of the budget.

Other capital projects include upgrades to firefighting efforts, including a new engine — estimated to cost around $650,000 — and new fencing and access lanes to the runways which are estimated at nearly $600,000.

“We continue to make improvements and continue to be more attractive to the airlines for additional air service. The fact that we have additional air service coming to Hawaii is definitely going to benefit us as to how airlines look at us for additional service,” Hastert said. “Our big push on that is eastbound regional jet service to a hub. Our top market right now is to the Denver area and eastbound from there. Denver is the perfect next city for us especially with Vandenberg (Air Force Base) and their contractors, there’s a lot of activity through Colorado Springs.”

Among the budgeted expenses for the coming fiscal year is $50,000 for election expenses. Four members of the airport board, which Hastert credited for continually modernizing the facility, are up for re-election in November.

They are current President Carl Engel, Hugh Rafferty, Chuck Adams and Don Lahr. Lahr, who was appointed by the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors to succeed Ted Eckert, who died last year, is included with the directors whose four-year terms are ending.

“We have an excellent board of directors that has brought forth a lot of projects that have helped us stay competitive,” Hastert said. “It’s just a big system that if we just grow each part of it a little bit at a time, it will continue to grow and take off.”

June 27, 2012   By Brian Bullock/Staff Writer/bbullock@santamariatimes.com