Panama City to construct new airport

The federal government has cleared Panama City, Fla., to build the first commercial airport in the United States since the 2001 terrorist attacks.

The new Panama City-Bay County International Airport will give metro Atlantans broader --- and potentially cheaper --- air service to the Florida Panhandle beaches, where they flock each year by the hundreds of thousands. It could be landing its first jets in two years.

"We hope to be in operation by late 2009 or early 2010," said Randy Curtis, the airport's executive director. Construction could begin next month, he said.

The last U.S. commercial airport to be built was the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport, which opened near Fayetteville in late 1998.

The new Panama City airport has been vigorously opposed by some environmentalists and many Bay County residents. Voters gave the new facility a thumbs down in a nonbinding referendum three years back.

The airport, however, had the support of local officials and the powerful St. Joe Co., which donated land to build the new airport from the 800,000 acres the timber-turned-development company owns in the Panhandle.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers late last week issued the final federal permit necessary for construction to begin on the $330 million facility, which will be located between Fla. 77 and Fla. 79, about 10 miles from the nearest beaches.

The Panhandle beaches, from St. George Island and Mexico Beach in the east to Panama City Beach, Seagrove, Destin and Fort Walton in the west, count metro Atlanta as the primary engine for their recent tourist and real estate booms. Metro area residents account for about 21 percent of the 4.1 million people a year who visit just Panama City Beach.

The numbers are similar for neighboring Walton and Okaloosa counties.

"Atlanta considers us their beach," Bob Warren, executive director of the Bay County Tourist Development Council, said when the airport was proposed.

Bay County officials argue that the new airport will provide more frequent, cheaper and safer commercial air service to the region. Runways at the current airport, which is located on a bay, flood when hurricanes pass nearby. And only small, regional jets use the current facility, which translates to only about a dozen expensive flights to the area every day.

But airport opponents such as Don Hodges of nearby Lynn Haven, Fla., say the airport is not needed and will be a burden to local taxpayers, many of whom will now have to drive much farther to catch a flight. Traffic to the current airport has actually declined in recent years, Hodges said, raising serious questions about the need for a new facility.

"It is $300 million-plus of pure pork, and everybody with a big enough fork is ready to dig in --- St. Joe is at the head of the table," said Hodges, a former Atlanta resident who worked for Delta Air Lines for three decades.

Airline officials, who usually hold any new market strategies close to the vest, declined specific comment when asked if the new airport would lead to increased and cheaper beach flights for Atlantans.

Delta Air Lines spokesman Kent Landers said Delta supports development of the new airport "as long as it is financed and funded in a way that is fair to Delta and our customers." Landers said Delta operates 10 daily flights from the airport.

"We will continue to look for opportunities to better serve our customers in this market as the Panama City region expands," Landers said.

John Kirby, director of strategic planning and scheduling for AirTran Airways, said AirTran has met with Panama City airport officials several times over the years but would not even consider service because of the current airport's runway limitations.

"Given the fact Panama City is a popular resort area, it will create more general industry interest than you've seen before," Kirby said of the new facility. "Certainly it's something we can now consider looking at."

AirTran flies into Pensacola Regional Airport, about 100 miles west of Panama City.