All Systems Go: Airports Prepare for Competition

While Panama City’s new airport is getting all the attention at the moment, all four of Northwest Florida’s major aviation centers are preparing to entice tourists and business travelers alike.

All Systems Go While Panama City’s new airport is getting all the attention at the moment, all four of Northwest Florida’s major aviation centers are preparing to entice tourists and business travelers alike By Linda Kleindienst

For years they have battled for lower airfares, to improve service and, sometimes, each other.

Strung out across the 16-county landscape of Northwest Florida, the region’s four major airports served close to 2 million passengers in 2008 and contributed more than $1.1 billion to the local economy. And they are considered a vital link in the area’s future economic development.

Customers who utilize their services range from active military and college students to business travelers and those seeking a quiet beach vacation along the Gulf Coast. This year, in the midst of a troubled economy, passenger numbers dropped. But area airport officials have turned to billboard advertising, television commercials and Web site promotions to attract more fliers to their counters.

While those who run the airports have put a mostly good-natured public face on their relationship with each other, there’s plenty of behind-the-scenes sniping, especially in the battle to get Southwest Airlines to put its wheels down in this region.

"There is some competition, as you’d imagine," concedes Melinda Crawford, interim director of Pensacola Gulf Coast Regional Airport, the region’s busiest airport and the only one already serviced by one low-cost airline, Air-Tran. "But we are all focusing a great deal on making sure our facilities and customer service are top-notch."

Adds Kenneth Austin, director of Tallahassee Regional Airport: "We respect each other. (But) communities have to do what they have to do to be competitive."

In the last few years, the region’s four major airports have spent tens of millions of dollars to improve passenger amenities, including new rental car facilities, luggage handling systems and parking lots. In Panama City they are building a new $330 million state-of-the-art airport, to be called the Northwest Florida-Panama City International Airport, and the others have millions in new capital improvements planned. All are working to lure low-cost airlines to the Gulf Coast and pique the interest of international travelers — all of which they hope will combine to help their business rebound along with the state and national economies.

Their primary objective is to serve customers in their own market, although they’re not averse to winning over fliers from outside their immediate area. In the meantime, administrators at all four airports are hoping to win back the customers who have found it more cost- and time-effective to drive instead of fly to some destinations within Florida.

"We’re underserved and overpriced. Right now, we have a high number of passengers being bumped," admits Randy Curtis, director of Panama City-Bay County International Airport. But he hopes to see that change when the new international airport, under construction at West Bay, opens in May 2010. With a 10,000-foot runway, it is expected to bring in charters, possibly from Europe.

"Depending on how successful we are at attracting a low-cost carrier (to the new airport), we will see lower airfares and estimates of passenger traffic range from a conservative growth rate of 3 percent to doubling or tripling our passengers," Curtis says.

Enthusiastic supporters of the new airport have caused some friction with Northwest Florida Regional Airport, about 60 miles to the west, which leases 130 acres and runway space at Eglin Air Force Base through an unusual joint use agreement with the U.S. Air Force.

"There was an overzealousness on the part of some who tried to interfere with our relationship with the Air Force," says Greg Donovan, director of Northwest Florida Regional Airport in Fort Walton Beach, adding that his airport’s major cause "is to get noticed."

In recent weeks, particularly, the courting of Southwest has generated a frenzy of activity, as Pensacola, Panama City and Northwest Florida hustled to put together multi-million-dollar packages to lure the low-cost airline in what some characterize as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that will have long-lasting economic ramifications.

But Donovan is adamant that his airport is not going to close, no matter what happens, adding, "What our communities need to focus on is the strengths and benefits each airport offers."

850 Magazine asked each of the airport directors to tell us, in their own words, more about their operations. On the following pages you will get a rare glimpse into the challenges they face and the changes they see on the horizon.


Pensacola Gulf Coast Regional Airport Melinda Crawford, Interim Director, PNS


Who uses your airport? Our marketing data indicate that business travelers represent about 53 percent of PNS’ total passenger traffic.

What is the most popular passenger destination? The Washington, D.C., market area is our No. 1 destination.

What are you doing to attract more passengers? PNS will aggressively continue its marketing efforts and will strive to provide a "Fly Easy, Fly Pensacola" experience to each and every passenger


Major Airlines: AirTran, American Eagle, Continental, Delta/Northwest, US

Airways Runways: 7,004 feet, 7,000 feet

Flights per day: 78

Size: 1,474 acres

Gates: 12

Passengers/Year: 1.6 million

What changes in passenger traffic do you see coming? PNS has a stable passenger base composed primarily of business and military travelers, and we anticipate that our passenger traffic will grow in the future.

What is your biggest challenge? We have a wonderful group of airline partners, and one of our greatest challenges is to find opportunities to show them how much we value their service and commitment to PNS.

With the new International Airport coming on line, what positive and negative effects do you see on your airport? Pensacola Gulf Coast Regional Airport is the largest commercial airport, in terms of passenger traffic, from Jacksonville to New Orleans. Our marketing data indicates that, historically, PNS’ total passenger traffic has equated to 95 percent of the combined passenger traffic at all the other airports in the area (Panama City, Fort Walton Beach and Mobile, Ala.). Even though PNS does not recognize Bay County as part of our primary market (service) area we do, on occasion, attract Panama City residents to our airport to take advantage of the low fares provided by AirTran Airways, our low-cost carrier. They also enjoy more non-stop destinations, a greater number of daily flights and the larger aircraft. Our passenger numbers clearly show that the Panama City airport has not had an impact on our airport, and I have no reason to believe that the relocated airport will.

What major changes might we see at your airport in the next decade? In the next 25 years? In the next decade, the Sandspur hotel and retail development project will be constructed, and the airport is scheduled to complete its Air Commerce Park development. Both developments will serve as significant sources of additional non-airline revenues for PNS, allowing this airport to remain extremely competitive with the rates and fees it charges its airlines. In addition, during the next 10 years PNS will complete the full build-out of its existing concourse and the expansion of its public parking garage.

The construction of an additional concourse and extension of the airport’s primary runway are two projects identified in PNS’ master plan, and both may be pursued in the next 25 years if operations and passenger traffic warrant their development.


Northwest Florida Regional Airport Greg Donovan, Director, VPS


Who uses your airport? Of the nearly 750,000 passengers (per year), roughly a third are military on active duty, the remaining split between local residents (32 percent) and visitors from out of state 
(35 percent).

What is the most popular passenger destination? The most important destinations are Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Dallas, New York City, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Denver, Orlando and Tampa.


Major Airlines: American, US Airways, Continental, Northwest, and Delta

Runways: 12,005 feet, 10,012 feet

Flights per day: 52

Size: 130 acres (does not include runway area, which is leased from Eglin Air Force Base)

Gates: 7

Passengers/Year: 750,000

What are you doing to attract more passengers? We have rebranded Okaloosa Regional Airport to Northwest Florida to better describe our location and services to out-of-state customers. Communicating the fact that we are the closest and most convenient airport to Destin and the South Walton/30-A area is also important. (The airport) started a campaign to recruit direct service to Toronto, Canada, through the "We Want" program.

What changes in passenger traffic do you see coming? The FAA’s most recent estimates predict passenger enplanements in the U.S. will drop 7.8 percent in 2009, followed by an average growth of 2.7 percent through 2025. Locally, I believe that we will actually see more growth due to the new military programs – Army 7th Special Forces Headquarters relocating from North Carolina to 10 miles up the road from our terminal, and the influx of activity associated with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program.

What is your biggest challenge? Airlines have a finite number of aircraft and often make broad decisions about routes and frequency. Pitching the fact that the 
2.2 million people in our catchment area have a higher disposable income, are doing business with government programs that offer stability and, unlike South Florida, tourism is an untapped potential, are all messages that take a lot of work to convey.

With the new International Airport 
coming on line, what positive and negative effects do you see on your airport? We have already experienced the negative effects from a few overzealous individuals who have business or personal financial interest in the new Bay County airport who have attempted to interfere with our joint use agreement (with the U.S. Air Force). It strengthens our area by having new airport facilities … Ultimately, the consumer benefits by the competition, and our region can boast that there are multiple choices.

What major changes might we see at your airport in the next decade? In the next 25 years? I believe that the size of aircraft and airlines serving Northwest Florida Regional Airport will increase, routes will be more diversified, and we will continue the trend of having the most affordable fares.


Panama City-Bay County International Airport Randy Curtis, Director, PFN


Who uses your airport? Approximately two-thirds of our market is inbound passengers composed of both business and leisure travelers. The remaining one-third is outbound local travelers. Overall, the majority of passengers are leisure travelers.

What is the most popular passenger destination? The Northeast is the largest market for Panama City, accounting for nearly 30 percent of the total passenger market.


Major Airlines: Delta

Runways: 6,304 feet, 4,888 feet (new airport will have a 10,000-foot runway)

Flights per day: 12

Size: 745 acres 
(new airport, 4,000 acres)

Gates: 6

Passengers/Year: 170,000

What are you doing to attract more passengers? There are ongoing efforts to attract one or more low-cost carriers to the PFN market, as well as additional legendary (established) carriers. New and competitive air service will strengthen the passenger market as well as open doors for new direct routes and destinations, further increasing passenger traffic and visitors to the Panama City area.

What changes in passenger traffic do you see coming? The Panama City-Bay County International Airport is scheduled to relocate to a new and much larger site with all new facilities and infrastructure in May of 2010. This will make PFN the first post-9/11 airport to incorporate all-new security requirements implemented since that time and will prove to be America’s first "green" airport. These opportunities, along with the added room for growth and expansion, will allow PFN to target new industries needing runway access and, with the longer runways, airlines will be able to bring in larger aircraft allowing more passenger growth opportunities as well.

What is your biggest challenge? The current state of the economy is probably the biggest challenge for everyone. However, the Panama City market has held firm during the economic downturn due to being a strong business market. And when you factor in the huge military influx alongside the "world’s most beautiful beaches," PFN’s market has stayed the course. The new site will be much larger (more than 4,000 acres) in size, will have all-new infrastructure incorporating the needs of today’s airlines and modern security technologies, and will be the centerpiece of a much larger development plan, known as the West Bay Sector Plan, which incorporates over 75,000 acres of future development.

What major changes might we see at your airport in the next decade? Increased airline service to include new legacy and low-cost carriers, expanded international service, and new industry growth in and around the airport.

In the next 25 years? This time frame will most likely realize the need for the already planned additional parallel runway to be constructed and continued growth of the terminal building. This will open even more opportunity for continued industry expansion and continued growth in passenger and cargo operation.

Tallahassee Regional Airport Kenneth Austin, Director, TLH


Who uses your airport? The majority are business travelers. Government employees, parents and students make up a good percentage also as a result of state government, and the universities (Florida State University, Florida A&M University) and the community college (TCC).

What is the most popular passenger destination? South Florida (Miami/Fort Lauderdale), followed closely by the Washington, D.C., area and the New York/New Jersey area.


Major Airlines: American Eagle, Continental (Gulfstream), Delta/Northwest (Mainline, Atlantic Southeast, Mesaba and Pinnacle), US Airways

Runways: 8,000 feet and 6,000 feet

Flights per day: 33

Size: 2,743 acres

Gates: 14

Passengers/Year: 871,607

What are you doing to attract more passengers? TLH constantly meets with airlines throughout the year to increase competition. The airport recently attracted AirTran, a low-fare carrier, which ultimately had to drop out of the market due to Delta’s competition strategies. The airport also has an air-service incentive program that allows for the waiver of airport rates and charges for up to two years for any new service. This program also provides marketing assistance.

TLH has also embarked upon an aggressive advertising and marketing program which includes the establishment of Web site. The site includes a Total Trip Calculator, which allows potential customers to calculate the cost of flying out of Tallahassee versus leakage airports; the Fly Frazzle Free, which highlights the convenience of TLH and its amenities; and the Runway Rewards promotion, a monthly drawing for ticketed passengers.

For the future, the airport will continue to aggressively market and advertise the benefits of flying out of Tallahassee Regional Airport, and work with elected business and community leaders for greater economic development and job creation opportunities, thereby creating potential for more air travelers.

What changes in passenger traffic do you see coming? In the near term, due to the economy, TLH does not see any growth in passenger traffic. However, as the economy improves, passenger traffic will rebound.

What is your biggest challenge? Continuing to provide the TLH regional market affordable air service given the constant instability and vagaries of the airline industry.

With the new International Airport 
coming online, what positive and negative effects do you see on your airport? Tallahassee Regional Airport expects little impact, positive or negative, with the opening of International Airport. The markets served by both regions are distinctly different.

What major changes might we see at your airport in the next decade? In the next 25 years? TLH will be working aggressively to develop vacant airport land, focusing on such potential development as business/industrial park, light manufacturing, retail, themed visitor attractions, a solar farm and other alternative energy sources.