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. Thus far, the market and its new airport have fared very well.
When the Northwest Florida Beaches International 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 with a combination of rent incentives, marketing assistance, and perhaps most importantly, an agreement with the St. Joe Company that guranteed a profit for a three-year period.
Expectations were very high with regard to developing new service into the Panama City area, relates airport executive director John Wheat.
Service prior to the opening of the new airport was strictly done with regional jets. With the opening of the new airport, not only did Southwest 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.
People anticipated there would be new passengers, a growth in passengers, and an opportunity to start showcasing the Panama City area and surrounding areas.
"Looking back at the first year of operation, I don’t think there is any question that expectations were exceeded dramatically," remarks Wheat. "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. 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."
The market is known as a tourist destination — "It’s really like there are three different world’s down here within a 30-minute drive," comments Wheat.
Looking to the future, both Delta and Southwest have been extremely successful. Regarding the incentives put in place for the St. Joe Company and in bringing in Southwest Airlines — the market has been so successful that Southwest never had to make a draw on the guarantee; it has been profitable from day one.
"The Texas market and beyond … the service out of Houston has just been incredible; Southwest has averaged a 92 percent load factor," relates Wheat.
Delta has also profited from this market. During the past two years, Delta saw a 35 percent increase in passengers.
Some three months ago the airport initiated its first master plan; it will be completed in the next 6-12 months. "From that, we will put together a 20-year master plan with five-year windows and develop trigger points based on operations as well the passengers forecast for future expansion," explains Wheat.
"With that we will have a guide on how we will meet continued future demand."
Says Wheat, "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."
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