July 01--WEST BAY -- Market seasonality remains the biggest hurdle as efforts continue to lure additional commercial airline service to Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport (ECP).
But as the airport moves past its fourth birthday, along with its inaugural hiccups and growing pains Airport Director Parker McClellan said officials are now ready to focus on growing Bay County's flight options.
"Now we're really at a point where we think the market is mature and we have a real understanding of where our passengers come from," said McClellan, who recently returned from a mission to introduce ECP to prospective airlines. "We've seen tremendous growth in passenger traffic since we've been out here."
Since opening in 2010, the airport has added service from Southwest Airlines and also has emerged as the first Delta Air Lines mainline station in the Panhandle, which provides the option for multiclass service.
But the airlines, particularly Southwest, have had to adjust their schedules over the years to fit the area's seasonal tourism market, where business peaks between March and August.
"Both Delta and Southwest recognize that it's a strong market," McClellan said, adding that a seasonal market is a tough sell for new providers. "We're very successful March through October, but airlines want to come into a market and be successful year-round."
Airport officials are working with the Bay County Tourist Development Council (TDC), the South Walton Tourist Development Council, state tourism agency VisitFlorida and various chambers of commerce in the area to better understand the area's tourism industry growth and from where ECP's passengers are coming.
"As we're out meeting with airlines, we're just introducing them to our market," said McClellan, who described the process as "speed dating" with the different airlines. "We're here, we're open. ... We don't have to worry about any of the negatives of the past. We're taking all the positives and moving forward."
Officials also are continuing discussions with various airlines to re-establish intrastate airline service -- Southwest dropped service to Orlando in fall 2012 -- something McClellan said is often more challenging.
"It's been tried many times," he said. "The challenge is price versus driving time."
McClellan said year-round growth at ECP ultimately will come from diversifying the Northwest Florida economy, a major goal of the Bay County Economic Development Alliance.
"The Panhandle, I think, is a community waiting for the switch ... for the dimmer to be turned up a little bit," McClellan said. "I think we're poised for success."
Copyright 2014 - The News Herald, Panama City, Fla.