$120 Million For Airport: Necessity Or Waste?

Oct. 3--PANAMA -- CITY, Fla. -- Only 13 commercial flights leave the Panama City-Bay County International Airport every day. Passengers walk out onto the tarmac to board 74-passenger turboprops that deliver them to Atlanta or some other airline...

Curtis, the airport director, said that even if the existing airport's safety problems were fixed, the short runway is an impediment to bringing in new air carriers. He provided letters and e-mail from American Airlines/American Eagle and Allegiant Air saying the short runway might require them to restrict the weight on their flights to take off safely. Both said they would be interested in serving Panama City at the new airport, but neither company made a commitment.

"We have the highest airfares in the region," Curtis said. "The [runway] restrictions make it hard to get the level of competition we need."

Hodges disagrees with the theory that a new airport and longer runway will attract additional air carriers to Panama City. He points out that Tallahassee Regional Airport, with an 8,000-foot runway, lost AirTran service after three years. The low-fare AirTran said it left because it was losing money. Hodges said AirTran is much more likely to return to Tallahassee than expand service into a smaller market in Panama City.

Bay County's population is just more than 160,000, but local boosters expect it to grow substantially as St. Joe's development plans unfold and more wealthy Northerners discover the white sands and turquoise waters off Panama City Beach.

In anticipation of that growth, it makes sense to build a new airport in an area where it has room to expand, said Seth Young, a professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach.

"It's not a matter of trying to fix the old airport; it's a matter of creating a facility that can handle the growth over the next 20 years in the region," said Young, whose expertise is airport planning.

"It's not about a short-term fix; it's a long-range plan," he said. "And that's actually not costing that much local money at all. It's mostly FAA and state money."

Researcher Michael Messano contributed to this report. Reporter Mike Salinero can be reached at (813) 259-8303 or msalinero


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