By KEITH LAING
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Oct. 22, 2009……….The Panhandle’s controversial new international airport will provide Northwest Florida travelers more options when it opens in the spring of 2010, but some are worried the airport’s take off could also end up causing a rocky landing for air travel to the capital.
With flights into Tallahassee’s regional airport often a pricey premium, some capital air passengers already drive about two hours east to catch cheaper flights at the Jacksonville International Airport. But when the first flight takes off from the newly-named Northwest Florida – Panama City International Airport next May, those passengers will also have the option of driving about the same distance in the opposite direction in search of affordable airfare.
Exacerbating the fears of advocates of increasing flight service to the state capital, like state Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee, low cost airline Southwest Airlines announced this week that it would fly eight flights a day from Panama City to Nashville and Baltimore-Washington International.
Vasilinda, who has proposed ending the 6.9 cents per gallon fuel tax on flights to Tallahassee as a way to spur flight options to the capital, told the News Service of Florida that she did not know for sure the Panama City airport would cause airlines that already are reticent to fly into Tallahassee to send their planes there instead. But she said she was concerned about the possibility.
“I’m looking into it,” said Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee. “I was hoping that the aviation fuel tax might have been able to lure Southwest here.”
Vasilinda’s fuel tax plan ran out of gas last year when local officials said it might negatively impact Tallahassee’s ability to contribute to a state aviation grant pool – as well as the amount of money the city can take out of the pool. But Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University College of Business Dean Daniel Petree said Vasilinda’s concern about the future relationship between the international airport in Panama City and the regional airport in Tallahassee was merited.
“It’s a perfectly legitimate question,” Petree said. But he quickly added, “I don’t think anyone can predict the impact with any kind of certainty.”
Petree said Southwest’s decision to fly into Panama City – the airline already flies from Jacksonville – was not necessarily a harbinger of airlines overlooking Tallahassee when they are looking for Panhandle destinations.
“I’m guessing they’re counting on seasonal travelers – the Spring Break kind of crowd,” he said. “I doubt other carriers will mimic that business model. Southwest is kind of an entity all to itself in the airline industry, so I wouldn’t necessarily say that Southwest deciding to fly in there means other carriers like Delta and Continental or some of their regional carriers will decide to.”
As an international airport, Panama City will be sure to have more flights coming in and out than a smaller regional airport like Tallahassee’s, but Petree also said that airport size alone did not determine the number of take-offs and landings.
“The timing matters in all these decisions,” he said. “The truth is that everybody is down. They’re down because commercial aviation has drastically cut back capacity because that’s the only way they can survive this trough in the economy.”
Petree added that was unlikely to change even as the economy begins to rebound, saying “I don’t see airlines adding a lot of capacity back fast.”
“They’ve got to build back up their capacity and discipline their business model, so it will remain competitive, particular for regional airports,” he said.
Tallahassee Airport assistant director Philip Inglese agreed that the capital airport, which averages between 720,000 and 750,000 passengers per year, would remain viable when Panama City’s facility opens. Inglese said the capital airport had studied the impact of larger facilities nearby often and found there were different clientele likely to utilize the two airports.
“Historically because we’re a business market and they’re a leisure market, there’s no impact,” Inglese said. “They’re bringing people in from other regions of the country for the beaches, whereas Tallahassee attracts people trying to get to the Capitol to do business or go from the Capitol. Some do, but business travelers are generally not looking to travel two to three hours to catch a flight.”
The Panama City airport’s relocation and expansion, which is expected to cost $330 million, has been in the works since the late 1990s and resulted from a successful effort from local environmentalists to block a proposed runaway expansion of the existing airport. Land conservation groups don’t like the planned new facility much either, but the airport says it will be the first new international airport in the U.S. since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks rocked the nation’s aviation industry.
Airport officials said last month that the new facility was 73 percent complete and hailed the development in a statement about the new name last week.
“With each milestone we pass, we move closer to the day the new airport will deliver on the goals this community established 10 years ago: better and more competitive air service and the establishment of an economic development engine for the region,” said airport authority Vice Chairman Bill Cramer in a statement. “We look forward to welcoming visitors to the region at the new Northwest Florida – Panama City International Airport in May 2010.”