MARATHON, Fla. (AP) - Commercial air service to the middle Florida Keys was set to be restored Thursday after a nearly six-year hiatus, promising to bring a financial boost while giving tourists more access to the island chain.
A 40-seat Delta Airlines jet was to scheduled to land at Florida Keys Marathon Airport at 12:35 p.m. The fully booked flight was to be greeted with much fanfare, with fire trucks spraying arching streams of water for the plane to pass under on the 5,000-foot runway.
Delta is offering a daily flight to and from its Atlanta hub and Marathon, with an additional arrival in Marathon on Friday and an additional departure to Atlanta on Sunday.
Marathon is a city of 11,000 people about an hour's drive from both the fishing and diving destination of Key Largo and historic Key West. Tourists in the Middle Keys have the sometimes inconvenient option of flying into Miami and driving more than three hours to reach their Keys destination by using U.S. 1, the only road in and out of the island chain. They can also fly into Key West's busy airport, which has 60 flights per day.
'This gets people actually where they want to go,' said U.S. Rep. John Mica, a Florida Republican who helped secure federal baggage screeners for the airport. 'You don't have to fly to Miami and then drive here. What a waste. We pollute the atmosphere with more vehicles on the highway.'
The Marathon airport has been operating solely for small planes that offer charter flights, air taxis and private lessons after commercial air service ended in April 2000. At that time, the airport was suffering from decreasing capacity stemming from sluggish traffic in the summer season.
The rebirth of commercial service did not come easily. U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Keys officials fought hard for a federal grant for the airport and an agreement from the Transportation Safety Administration to offer baggage screeners, which it had initially refused.
A $750,000 grant from the Federal Aviation Administration was secured for the airport, and another $300,000 was locally raised to provide profit guarantees for the first year.
The new service is estimated to add 27 jobs and bring an economic impact of about $43.7 million -- more than double the $17.1 million it generated in 2004, according to a study by The Boyd Group.
Tourists likely will make up the bulk of Delta's passengers, with Keys residents also able to take advantage of the flight to Delta's busy Atlanta hub. But flights aren't cheap, ranging from about $600 to potentially more than $1,000 per ticket.
The addition of commercial service faced little local opposition, mainly because the airport is adding only one flight which won't significantly affect noise. But some local small-business owners said they are not completely sure the new service will help them financially.
John Paryse, 61, owns the 7-room Anchor Inn just down U.S. 1 from the airport. He says travelers who spend $600 or more on a flight would more likely prefer to spend big money on a room at a more expensive hotel with water access and scores of amenities instead of at his small, inexpensive roadside hotel. That gives the large corporation an advantage over the mom-and-pop hotel owner.
Ros-Lehtinen said she was wants to expand commercial service both in Marathon and Key West. Peter Horton, Monroe County's airport director, said expanding service at the airport was a goal.
'We have opportunities for other airlines as well because the Delta numbers are so strong,' Horton said. 'I see nothing but increased air service for this facility.'
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