As debate simmers this summer over expanding the Santa Barbara Municipal Airport's terminal, one thing is clear: The number of people using the facility has grown much faster than the building itself.
Despite some opposition and mixed feelings among residents and visitors as to the final terminal size, city officials approved a $55 million airport improvement plan on May 17. That plan includes about $35 million to enlarge the terminal to 67,000 square feet in the next five years.
Some fear that tripling the size from its current 20,000 square feet will mean bigger jets and more flights. But a look at the growth in passengers over time and the space needed to accommodate their needs indicates that the larger terminal is necessary.
Airport officials have long insisted that the terminal expansion is needed to handle the increase in passengers. Through good times and bad, the number of travelers using the airport has risen an average of 4 percent a year since 1970.
Despite that growth, the terminal size has not increased.
"The county's population has grown by more than 100,000 people since 1976, the last time the terminal was expanded," said Karen Ramsdell, director of the local airport.
The original terminal built in 1942 by United Airlines totaled a mere 7,000 square feet. The building was designed by Edwards and Plunkett, the same architects as the Arlington Theatre. Only 5,000 passengers used the airport that year.
By 1976, two "wings" had been added, flanking both sides of the main terminal to accommodate gate space for the growing number of passengers.
Those additions brought the terminal size to 20,000 square feet. Yet the number of travelers had increased nearly 80 times to hit 398,000 in 1976.
Fast-forward to 2004, when the number of passengers reached the second-highest level in the airport's history, 824,000.
Although the terminal building itself has not been expanded since 1976, separate structures have been added over the years, and additional off-site space has been used to accommodate the growing airport's operations.
This "outside the terminal" space includes the two covered baggage claim areas. A separate portable structure was placed next to the eastern baggage claim to serve as an office for lost luggage.
The rental car offices, as well as storage facilities and administrative offices, all had to be moved off-site for lack of space in the terminal.
Altogether, the off-site spaces offer an additional 25,300 square feet. If these areas were all under one roof, the total size of occupied space would be 45,300 square feet.
This is effectively the terminal size the airport has been operating with since the early 1990s, when expansion discussions began. At that time, the passenger count was roughly 550,000.
That number stayed relatively flat for several years following the 1991 recession. By 1996, however, travelers began to flock to the airport again, setting a record of 845,000 in 1997.
Turmoil within the airline industry during the late 1990s reduced flights and hiked fares at the local airport, causing an erosion in passengers. Just as it appeared that the situation was beginning to improve in 2001, the September terrorist attacks dealt a devastating blow to travel.
Santa Barbara Municipal Airport did not have the steep drops that crippled many airports across the country, and the local facility rebounded fairly quickly. In 2003, passenger levels reversed a five-year decline and headed upward.
So far this year, passenger traffic has grown by 8 percent over the 2004 number and appears on track to set a record. Airport director Ms. Ramsdell said passenger levels are expected to rise by 5 percent this year, which would mean a total of about 865,000.
Signs of overcrowding at the airport are most evident in the cramped gate areas. Seats are limited, and bags and other carry-on items block the walkways. The airline carriers also have had to struggle in slim spaces, as more and more precious floor room has been taken up by security check areas.