Airport Seeks Grant

PANAMA CITY

It took only two weeks in April for the Panama City-Bay County International Airport to raise more than $430,000 from the local business community for cheaper airfare.

The pledges of money and in-kind contributions are part of a grant application to the U.S. Department of Transportation. The airport is seeking $1 million from the $10 million available from the Small Community Air Service Development Grant in order to bring in a new lowcost carrier or to work with existing carriers to lower fares.

The grant language states that communities that have a match will have a competitive advantage, said Kip Turner, the airport employee who wrote the grant.

"The bottom line is it is expensive to fly out of here. Everyone needs to be doing everything in their power to recruit low-cost carriers," said Carol Roberts, the CEO and president of the Bay County Chamber of Commerce. "Our local companies need immediate relief."

The current fares are anywhere from 20- to 50-percent higher in Panama City than at other regional airports, Roberts said Monday.

"They (business owners) want to be supportive of their local airport," Roberts said. "But because of their budgets they're being pushed to drive to Tallahassee.

That's a sentiment shared by Glen McDonald, vice president of Applied Research Associates. McDonald's defense contracting company has someone in the air every week meeting with customers and testing their products.

The problem is not only with cost, McDonald said, it also is with choice. Currently, the airport has only two carriers Atlantic Southeast Airlines and Northwest Airlines.

The Bay County Chamber of Commerce is offering advertising space on its Web site and advertising in other publications for the new carrier. But before a new carrier can be convinced to come to Panama City, the airport has to win the grant.

The airport is facing competition from 75 other airports for grant money from the $10 million pot, said Bill Mosley, a public affairs specialist with DOT. Last year, the department awarded 25 grants totaling about $9.7 million, he said.

The Okaloosa Regional Airport is also seeking money from the grant pool. They raised $75,000 in pledges.

In a Monday e-mail, Mosley said the grant is supposed to be given to airports with air fares that are higher than the national average. The grant also is supposed to provide material benefits to a broad segment of the traveling public whose access to national air transportation system is limited.

DOT is expected to announce the winners between July and September, Turner said. Airport officials originally were planning to ask for only $600,000 but the "overwhelming response" from the community convinced them to ask for more, Turner said.

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