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New Panama City Airport May Ground Some Capital Flights

The Panhandle’s controversial new international airport will provide Northwest Florida travelers more options when it opens in the spring of 2010, but some are worried the airport’s take off could also end up causing a rocky landing for air travel to the capital.

With flights into Tallahassee’s regional airport often a pricey premium, some capital air passengers already drive about two hours east to catch cheaper flights at the Jacksonville International Airport. But when the first flight takes off from the newly-named Northwest Florida – Panama City International Airport next May, those passengers will also have the option of driving about the same distance in the opposite direction in search of affordable airfare.

Exacerbating the fears of advocates of increasing flight service to the state capital, like state Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee, low cost airline Southwest Airlines announced this week that it would fly eight flights a day from Panama City to Nashville and Baltimore-Washington International.

Vasilinda, who has proposed ending the 6.9 cents per gallon fuel tax on flights to Tallahassee as a way to spur flight options to the capital, told the News Service of Florida that she did not know for sure the Panama City airport would cause airlines that already are reticent to fly into Tallahassee to send their planes there instead. But she said she was concerned about the possibility.

“I’m looking into it,” said Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee. “I was hoping that the aviation fuel tax might have been able to lure Southwest here.”

Vasilinda’s fuel tax plan ran out of gas last year when local officials said it might negatively impact Tallahassee's ability to contribute to a state aviation grant pool - as well as the amount of money the city can take out of the pool. But Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University College of Business Dean Daniel Petree said Vasilinda’s concern about the future relationship between the international airport in Panama City and the regional airport in Tallahassee was merited.

“It’s a perfectly legitimate question,” Petree said. But he quickly added, “I don’t think anyone can predict the impact with any kind of certainty.”

Petree said Southwest’s decision to fly into Panama City – the airline already flies from Jacksonville – was not necessarily a harbinger of airlines overlooking Tallahassee when they are looking for Panhandle destinations.

“I’m guessing they’re counting on seasonal travelers – the Spring Break kind of crowd,” he said. “I doubt other carriers will mimic that business model. Southwest is kind of an entity all to itself in the airline industry, so I wouldn’t necessarily say that Southwest deciding to fly in there means other carriers like Delta and Continental or some of their regional carriers will decide to.”

As an international airport, Panama City will be sure to have more flights coming in and out than a smaller regional airport like Tallahassee’s, but Petree also said that airport size alone did not determine the number of take-offs and landings.
“The timing matters in all these decisions,” he said. “The truth is that everybody is down. They’re down because commercial aviation has drastically cut back capacity because that’s the only way they can survive this trough in the economy.”

Petree added that was unlikely to change even as the economy begins to rebound, saying “I don’t see airlines adding a lot of capacity back fast.”

“They’ve got to build back up their capacity and discipline their business model, so it will remain competitive, particular for regional airports,” he said.

Tallahassee Airport assistant director Philip Inglese agreed that the capital airport, which averages between 720,000 and 750,000 passengers per year, would remain viable when Panama City’s facility opens. Inglese said the capital airport had studied the impact of larger facilities nearby often and found there were different clientele likely to utilize the two airports.

“Historically because we’re a business market and they’re a leisure market, there’s no impact,” Inglese said. “They’re bringing people in from other regions of the country for the beaches, whereas Tallahassee attracts people trying to get to the Capitol to do business or go from the Capitol. Some do, but business travelers are generally not looking to travel two to three hours to catch a flight.”

The Panama City airport’s relocation and expansion, which is expected to cost $330 million, has been in the works since the late 1990s and resulted from a successful effort from local environmentalists to block a proposed runaway expansion of the existing airport. Land conservation groups don’t like the planned new facility much either, but the airport says it will be the first new international airport in the U.S. since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks rocked the nation’s aviation industry.

Airport officials said last month that the new facility was 73 percent complete and hailed the development in a statement about the new name last week.

“With each milestone we pass, we move closer to the day the new airport will deliver on the goals this community established 10 years ago: better and more competitive air service and the establishment of an economic development engine for the region,” said airport authority Vice Chairman Bill Cramer in a statement. “We look forward to welcoming visitors to the region at the new Northwest Florida – Panama City International Airport in May 2010.”

4 Responses »

  1. I've lived in the Capital City since 1980, and this has always been an issue. But TLH has survived, and even expanded despite it. Many people drive to JAX to take advantage of more choices and lower prices. I've done it a few times, but not too many. I've found that by the time you add in the travel time, fuel, and sometimes even a sleep over, it's not worth it. And there are good interstate highways between TLH and JAX. That is not the case with the new Panama City airport. It is closer in miles, but in a very isolated part of the low country that is not easy to get to. I don't see it changing things much for TLH. Now I fly exclusively out of TLH and find the service very good. Capacity seems right, as most flights in and out are full, and I like a smaller airport to come home to. It takes less time to get my bag, get to the car, and is a much shorter drive home. And we have more non-stop destinations than we ever have, and will soon have non-stop to Washington D.C. TLH will survive just fine, as it always has. Although I support the fuel tax break. It can't hurt.

  2. Also, please note that Panama City has always been Panama City Beach International Airport--and that designation has not yielded it any better air service in the past. So I disagree that this will increase its service any. You also forgot to mention that Southwest only agreed to serve this airport after St. Joe Paper put up a $14 million profit guarantee. It can exit after that money is gone.

    Also, it's 10,000 foot runway is only 1,000 longer than TLH, which can (and has) landed a Boeing 747 (think Air Force One), and also during football season welcomes Boeing 767 charters with no trouble. Pilots love TLH and Delta uses it for touch and goes during slow parts of the day. I don't really think this Panama City airport was needed.

  3. Don't you folks remember that AirTran tried to serve your city and failed??? That's why Southwest didn't pick TLH. It's because you've already proven yourself unable to support low cost service. And an airport in Panama City IS needed because that area is hard to access by plane right now, is a pain in the but to drive to from places like Nashville, is a pain in the butt to drive to from places like Pensacola, has ALOT more visitors than TLH, and has both active and predicted growth that far outpaces that of TLH. It's inaccurate to write Southwest off as just some strange airline like Allegiant because they didn't pick your city. It happens to be the largest domestic carrier in the United States with between 100 and 200 flights a day in places like Chicago, Houston, and Los Angeles. And even if you had offered incentives again to SW like you did DL recently they probably wouldn't have taken them considering that you all couldn't make small prop planes profitable with them. Runway length and the Florida State football team don't equal demand. What a bunch of cry baby baffoons.

    • TLH was never trying to get Southwest. That was Pensacola, Ft. Walton, and Panama City. Incentives with AirTran were a mess--and proved the capital city doesn't really want this type of cheaper travel. Legacy carriers with more non-stop service do best here because most people here belong to frequent flyer programs not offered by the discount carriers. That is why recent incentive programs did not target the discounts like Southwest.

      You missed the point of the article, which was to say PC's new airport would hurt business at TLH. It won't, because the travelers at TLH are business travelers--and they won't drive 100 miles to catch Southwest. And college students that would likely use Southwest usually drive home first before flying to other destinations.

      I think Southwest's success at PC will be seasonal. I doubt it will keep full service flights all year long.