A charter airline based in Atlanta will start selling tickets for scheduled commercial service today, largely targeting travelers looking for cheap Florida vacations.
Vision Airlines will fly to 20 U.S. destinations, including Tampa Bay through St. Petersburg-Clearwater International by April 1.
The carrier will offer the area's only nonstop flights to Fort Walton Beach in the Florida Panhandle. It will also have the only direct flights to Gulfport-Biloxi, Miss., after AirTran Airways stops three-times-weekly flights from Tampa International in early March.
Vision is selling one-way fares as low as $49 for the first five days. Regular fares from St. Petersburg-Clearwater will start at $89 one way for Gulfport and $79 for Destin.
The airline's focus is Destin, long a popular beach spot near Fort Walton Beach for summer vacationers from Southeast states. Nearly all of the area's 8 million annual visitors drive. That's because major airlines make small-city travelers fly through big hubs on tiny jets at ridiculously high prices, says David Meers, Vision's chief operating officer.
"These markets are ignored by the large carriers," he said. "There's so little flying that people have had to endure a long drive."
Vision will fly full-sized Boeing 737 jets to connect 17 cities — from Miami to Niagara Falls and Little Rock to Savannah — with nonstop service to Destin.
The new routes also will bolster air travel within Florida, said Greg Donovan, director of Northwest Florida Regional Airport in Fort Walton Beach. The airport didn't have a single flight from another Florida city until Vision launched service to Miami in December. By April, the airline will fly to Tampa Bay, Orlando and Fort Myers as well.
Vision Airlines got started in 1994 flying sightseeing tours of the Grand Canyon. The privately owned company acquired larger planes and flew charters for celebrities and the federal government.
Vision attracted international attention last summer for its role in a spy swap. The airline flew 10 Russian spies from Dulles International Airport in northern Virginia to Vienna, where they were traded for four people convicted of spying for the West.
In November, a U.S. District Court jury in Nevada awarded the airline's former pilots and flight attendants more than $4.5 million in back hazard pay during night flights out of Afghanistan and Iraq for the government, Las Vegas newspapers reported.
Vision also is familiar with the friendlier skies at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International. The airline began flying to Gulfport-Biloxi a year ago, carrying customers who bought vacation packages from the Beau Rivage Resort and Casino.
Steve Huettel can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8128.