By KEITH LAING
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Aug. 9, 2010……….The controversial new international airport in Panama City, which was cleared for take-off after a decade-long fight with environmentalists, has seen friendly skies in its first few months of operation, airport officials said this month.
Executive Director Randy Curtis told the News Service of Florida that the airport, dubbed the Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport, has seen three times the traffic this summer as the old Panama City-Bay County International Airport did last year. The airport, the first new major airport built in the U.S. since Sept. 11, 2001, replaced the old facility for commercial air service on May 23, 2010.
The airport, which has been in the works since the late 1990s, was the result of a successful effort from local environmentalists to block a proposed runaway expansion of the existing Panama City airport. Land conservation groups did not like the new facility much either, but Curtis said that since it opened, passengers have.
Since opening, 83,000 passengers have flown to and from the facility. During the same span last year, Curtis said there were only 28,000 passengers.
A big reason for the uptick is Southwest Airlines, which began offering flights from the new airport to Nashville, Baltimore-Washington, D.C. (BWI), Houston and Orlando, Curtis said.
“Southwest introduced a level of competition we’ve never had, which resulted in lower fares,” he said.
The presence of Southwest also affected Delta, which used to fly smaller regional jets into the old airport. That changed when Southwest began flying 737s into the new facility, Curtis said.
“The competition with Delta impacted those services as well on several flights which have gone from regional flight to some of the mainline service,” he said. “Delta is up 20 percent over what we did last year.”
However, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University College of Business Dean Daniel Petree said the increase may be short-lived. While the tourism industry in the Panhandle took a big hit after the massive Gulf Coast oil spill, the clean-up effort produced a sharp increase in the number travelers to the area, he said.
“In a way, the oil spill was a bit of a windfall for the lodging and the travel industry in that region, though not the tourism businesses,” he said. “When you have that many people coming through, you have to put them some place, they have eat somewhere, rent cars, come through the airport.”
Because of that, Petree said it was too early to tell if the new airport, which was projected to cost $330 million to expand and relocate, would continue to avoid turbulence.
“I suspect there’s going to be some seasonal (fluctuations) and there’s been a lot of travel in that region because of the Gulf oil spill that would not be sort of what we expect to see when that particular event is over,” he said. “The Panhandle area of Florida has been unusually busy, with media, government officials and BP coming in and out on a regular basis. That’s a blip that would have to come out of the data before you could begin to see if projected traffic for that airport (holds up).”
However, Curtis said the airport would be buoyed by Southwest’s service to Baltimore-Washington International Airport (BWI) because of the Panhandle’s heavy military presence, which requires business trips to the nation’s capital.
“BWI opened up a lot of opportunities, not only for the military, but defense contractors,” he said.
Anecdotally, Curtis said the airport appears to be drawing state capital city passengers who would ordinarily take a slightly longer drive to Jacksonville for cheaper flights than the ones that are offered at Tallahassee Regional Airport.
“From a Tallahassee perspective, a lot of folks normally drive to Jacksonville to catch Southwest,” he said. “We’re a little bit closer, so I think we’re picking up many of those.”
Officials from the Tallahassee airport, which averages between 720,000 and 750,000 passengers per year, did not respond immediately to requests for comment. But the airport has maintained that Panama City airport would not negatively impact the capital airport because it relies primarily on business travelers who prefer the convenience of flying directly in Tallahassee. The higher cost of those flights is usually picked up by employers.
Petree agreed, and added that the Panama City airport would likely not negatively pull too many customers away from Jacksonville either, especially for Southwest.
“My sense of Southwest is that they are a very disciplined outfit,” he said. “We’ve heard going on three or four years that they are looking for additional markets to serve. We’ve been trying to get them to come into Daytona Beach, but we just don’t have what they looking for.”
Even if the Panama City does draw passengers away from Jacksonville as it appears to be doing to Tallahassee, Petree said Southwest is not likely to make significant changes to its Jacksonville offerings.
“The fact that they choose the new airport says they did not think it would impact (Jacksonville),” he said. “They wouldn’t have done that if they thought it was going to draw ridership away from their Jacksonville outpost. They’re not an airline that comes in and withdraws from a market really quickly. They make really long commitments to a market.”
Petree said the new airport to the west is also not likely to cause Tallahassee officials to consider expanding the capital airport, though the city and state have cut deals with airlines to provide service and at least one Tallahassee state lawmaker has proposed ending the fuel tax on flights to Tallahassee as a way to spur flight options to the capital.
“It’s a very big commitment and a very expensive proposition to expand an airport dramatically,” he said. “There’s a ready-made market in Tallahassee with state government and the universities, but there are a lot of other state capitols that are served by regional carriers, what we would think of as second-tier carriers. Unless a major manufacturer is going to open in Tallahassee and drive a strong surge in traffic and jobs, I don’t think there’s reason for (the city) to undergo the hassle of expanding the airport.”