New Panhandle airport off to sputtering start

PANAMA CITY BEACH — There's no bustle at this new international airport in the Florida Panhandle: Many flights have empty seats, the security line's a breeze, and ticket agents outnumber passengers at times.

Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport opened in May, soon after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. It sits on 4,000 acres donated by the St. Joe Co., a land developer that's hoping one day to transform 72,000 more acres of surrounding pine and swampy forests into a bustling tourism and aerospace corridor.

The airport offers 19 daily flights on Delta and Southwest to Atlanta, Baltimore, Houston, Memphis, Nashville and Orlando, but those flights were only about 60 percent full on average in October — compared with a national average of 83 percent.

Some see weak passenger numbers as a sign the airport should never have been built.

There's even speculative talk that Southwest may pull out when its three-year deal with St. Joe expires in 2013: The airline has a $1.42 billion deal to acquire Airtran, which flies to Pensacola, the Panhandle's most-populated region.

Meanwhile, grumbling about the airport by detractors continues.

"There was never a transportation need for that airport," said Linda Young, director of the Clean Water Network of Florida and a longtime foe. "This was always a real estate deal."

St. Joe, a former timber company, says it envisions creating a future aerospace hub capitalizing on the Panhandle's many military bases and on making the area a world-class tourism destination, based on the region's pristine white sands.

Skimpy passenger numbers haven't deterred the airport's boosters.

"The passenger numbers we are seeing now are very much in line with what we had expected," said Dan Rowe, president of the Panama City Convention and Visitors Bureau. He said he expects passenger volume to rise gradually.

Industry analysts say the airport's May 23 opening — one month after BP's Deepwater Horizon well exploded in the gulf and began sending oil globs toward Florida's gulf beaches — is partly to blame for the sluggish first six months.

St. Joe CEO Britton Greene told the Associated Press in June that the opening in the midst of the oil spill "couldn't have come at worse time."

Now the visitors bureau and Southwest plan a winter tourism campaign hoping to bolster passenger numbers from the Northeast.

Indeed, the airport is inviting with its views of secluded pine forests and a 30-minute drive to prime beach retreats.

New Panhandle airport off to sputtering start 12/13/10 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 1:40pm]

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