St. Augustine lands its first airline flight; Columbus, Ohio-based Skybus Airlines makes its maiden voyage to the city.

July 20, 2007

ST. AUGUSTINE - It took just a little longer than anyone planned, but midafternoon Wednesday, St. Augustine Airport became the First Coast's newest place to catch a commercial flight.

About 45 minutes behind schedule, the orange-painted Airbus hove into view, greeted by bursts from water cannons and applause.

City officials and volunteers with trays of cookies stood ready to greet the first arrivals from Columbus, Ohio, where upstart, ultra-low-fare carrier Skybus Airlines has its hub.

It was an exciting day for the nation's oldest city, with city officials convinced that the new service will put it more firmly on the tourism map.

"It will have a long-term benefit," said John Baird, chair of the St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & The Beaches Visitors and Convention Bureau, as even people who are just passing through will get to know about the area.

And there were some signs of that, even on Skybus' maiden voyage to St. Augustine, which included passengers like Lucy Washika, who wasn't familiar with St. Augustine before seeing it on the route map.

"That's where Skybus landed," she said, explaining the family was looking for an inexpensive vacation spot. "We just came here to relax."

Part of the route map, it should be noted, identifies the airport as being in Jacksonville/Daytona Beach, confusing some passengers, at least one of whom had a rental car reserved at Daytona Beach International Airport. City officials said they're working to get the labeling changed.

Skybus' cheap tickets - 10 seats a flight go for $10 with the rest up to $160 one-way - was the deciding factor for most travelers, including people like Judy Samuels of Daytona Beach, whose son and daughter-in-law live in Ohio. "They yell at me for never coming up and seeing them," she said, something that changed when she was able to snag a $186 round-trip ticket. "I thought it was fabulous."

The low prices attracted travelers from even farther afield, like Rosalee Ryals, who drove up from Kissimmee after managing to snag $56 round-trip tickets - $10 out, $30 back - for her and her kids.

She also tacked on the $10 per-person priority boarding fee that let the family get on first. "I wanted to make sure we could all sit together," she said.

The 156-seat plane was about three-quarters full coming in and 80 percent full going out, the company said. "We're very pleased with our bookings," said Denis Carvill, a company vice president.

In recent months, the First Coast has become a favorite of low-cost airlines, particularly those serving particular focused markets. Over the past year, Jacksonville International Airport has seen the arrival of JetBlue Airways, which flies to New York City's John F. Kennedy International Airport; Frontier Airlines, which flies to Denver; and ExpressJet, which goes to four cities in the region.

"It has to do with the markets we're looking at," said Barbara Halverstadt, JIA's manager of air trade development. "Markets where we don't have nonstop, those are markets I'll look at."

For St. Augustine, now that the first flight is out of the way, the city will start building on that base. Baird had volunteers out talking to arriving passengers to see where they were from, with an eye toward an advertising campaign in prime markets.

And other flights? Ed Wuellner, the Executive Director of the St. Augustine Airport Authority, shrugs. The Skybus business started with the company calling the authority one day. "We'll keep answering the phone," he said. (904) 359-4103