Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport executive director John Wheat
With more than 27 miles of hotels, sugar-white sand beaches, and emerald waters along the Gulf of Mexico, Panama City Beach is considered by many to be an ultimate vacation destination.
When the airport opened in May of 2010, there was a tremendous amount of excitement for the brand new facility serving the Panama City/Bay County area. Officials had secured Southwest Airlines to come in and serve the airport through a combination of rent incentives, marketing assistance, and perhaps most importantly, an agreement with the St. Joe Company that basically guaranteed a profit for a three-year period.
The expectations were very high with regard to having new service into the Panama City area, relates airport executive director John Wheat.
With the opening of the new airport, not only did Southwest to come in with 737s to fly its initial eight operations to four cities, but Delta Airlines also announced at the time that it would provide limited mainline service.
Comments Wheat, “Looking back at the first year of operation, I don’t think there is any question that expectations were exceeded dramatically.
“Prior to the opening, with regard to the market share of passengers utilizing the airports in the Florida Panhandle, the old airport had a 9 percent market share. After the first year of operation, passengers increased in excess of 165 percent; market share grew to more than 20 percent.”
After the second year, it just continued, he adds. “Passengers saw another tremendous gain close to 10 percent during the second year; market share has now increased to just below 24 percent within the region.”
What’s happened with regard to passenger growth has just been phenomenal, says Wheat. “While many airports have been struggling to keep their heads above water, this airport is showing fantastic gains and real positive impacts to the local economy.”
Regarding the incentives put in place for the St. Joe Company in bringing in Southwest Airlines — the market has been so successful that Southwest Airlines never had to make a draw on that guarantee; it has been profitable from day one.
“Southwest wasn’t all that familiar with this market, and the results of what happened here have really surprised them,” explains Wheat.
“As for the Texas market and beyond … the service out of Houston has just been incredible; Southwest has averaged a 92 percent load factor.
“The service provided into Nashville with direct service to Midway in Chicago has also been a phenomenal success.”
Delta has also profited from the market, seeing a 35 percent increase in passengers.
“About three months ago we initiated our first master plan to be accomplished; that will be completed in the next 6-12 months,” remarks Wheat.
“With that we will have a guide on how we will meet continued future demand.”
Wheat says there were a lot of issues related to building the airport, and the organization has solved 99 percent of the issues that were lingering. “There were lawsuits; the sale of the old airport … all of those issues have been taken care of,” he explains.
“We’ve brought certainty to our air carriers, and really to the community, that the airport is now positioned for long-term growth and success.”