Bay County’s Airport is Breaking Passenger Records

Taking Flight



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Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport turned 5 years old this spring. And it’s been a healthy first five years.

From a controversial start, the sprawling complex in western Bay County has grown into the second busiest airport in the Florida Panhandle and more than doubled the number of passengers that flew through the old Panama City airport.

The airport, known by its FAA code ECP, had one of its busiest months ever in July, serving nearly 100,000 passengers. Now, the airport is gearing up for future expansions that include adding a new runway, building new connector roads and remodeling parts of the terminal, such as the restaurants.

“The vision that people had years ago when they developed this airport, that vision is coming to fruition, and the success is being seen across the board,” said Parker McClellan, executive director of Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport.

Courtesy of Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport

Getting Off to a Rough Start

Replacing the old Panama City airport (PFN) with a brand new airport in environmentally sensitive West Bay was not a popular idea at first. Voters shot it down in a non-binding referendum, and the National Resources Defense Council and other environmental groups filed suit to halt the project.

But the new airport had strong state and local political support, and was backed by the weight of The St. Joe Company, which had plans to develop the land around the airport and was willing to donate a piece of West Bay for the site. Construction was inevitable.

It did not go smoothly, as contractor Phoenix Construction struggled with laying sod and building sufficient stormwater drainage in swampy West Bay, leading to delays, cost overruns and environmental fines. Phoenix owner James Finch sued the airport over withheld payments and the airport countersued. In 2012, they settled and paired up in a suit against Kellogg Brown and Root, the project managers.

Final cost for the construction: about $325 million, according to McClellan.

Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport was completed and opened in May 2010.

It was not an opportune time. The economy was still finding its feet again — and in late April of that year, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig had exploded, spilling millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, where it began fouling beaches in Florida, Alabama and Mississippi. Panama City Beach was not affected, but people still stayed away.

Shortly after the opening, The Associated Press quoted then-St. Joe CEO Britton Greene: “Could the timing be any worse? The timing for a disaster like this is never good. This is an interruption that no one would have wanted, but this will end.”

As it turned out, he was right.

 

Five Years of Growth

The economy strengthened, the beaches recovered and fliers began, well, flocking to the new Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport.

The old Panama City airport had served a little more than 312,000 passengers in 2009, its last year of operation. The new airport doubled that number and then some — 839,000 passengers passed through the new facility in its first year, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Four airlines now serve ECP: Delta, United, Southwest and Silver Air. Of those, Delta and Southwest fly a little more than 90 percent of the passengers; the rest travel on United and Silver.

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