Ready for Takeoff
New Airport Director John Wheat sees a bright future for Bay County.
The skies above Northwest Florida have become markedly busier in the past year and a half, thanks to the buzz of activity at the Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport (ECP), which opened in May 2010. Since its first day, passenger travel has tripled, servicing around 860,000 customers traveling in and out of the area.
John Wheat, 60, came on board as the new executive director of the airport on May 1, 2011, less than one month before the airport celebrated its first anniversary on May 23. He has worked in the aviation field for nearly 30 years, previously as the interim director at Tampa International Airport and deputy director at Salt Lake City International Airport in Utah. He replaces Randy Curtis, executive director for more than 15 years, who now works as director of special projects for the airport.
As director of the first U.S. airport to be built in the past decade, Wheat says his focus will be on providing good customer service, competitive rates and expanded destinations. Located in West Bay near Panama City and Panama City Beach, the Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport services Delta and Southwest airlines.
As jets come and go in the distance, easily viewed from his large office window overlooking the runway, Wheat speaks of getting to know and love Northwest Florida, facing the challenges of a new airport and planning for an influx of first-time tourists and business travelers to the area.
How is the new airport the gateway to Northwest Florida? Air service is one of the best ways to get to this area from outside the five-hour drive area. The key is growing air service and expanding into new cities. Airports aren’t the cause of growth, but they are the engines to economic development. All businesses evaluate the air service opportunities in a community as one of their key requirements to relocating. Our role is to do whatever we can to provide great facilities, encourage our existing air carriers to expand service and market other carriers to initiate service. All of these efforts will result in improved air services, which brings economic benefits to the region.
How has the addition of Southwest affected the regional economy? Anytime you bring in new city service and provide competitive airfares you’re going to stimulate the local market and the market you’re flying to. Our traffic has almost tripled compared to previous years. Travelers are sensitive to airfares, and when you can introduce low airfares into markets they will travel more often because it is affordable. The effect of Southwest in this market is a shining example.
What about Delta? Competition is a very good thing in the airline business. Since we opened the new airport, Delta’s traffic has also seen a significant increase as fares have been reduced. Most of the people who come to visit us drive. As we continue to enhance air service with competitive airfares, more and more visitors will choose to fly because of the convenience and cost.
What are your immediate plans for the airport? In the coming year we’ll do a thorough passenger analysis and survey, which will give us a better understanding of such things as where local passengers are originating from, where visiting travelers are going, demographics on our passengers and the type of transportation used to access the airport. We will also begin conducting a master plan for the new airport within the next three months, which will develop demand forecasts for a 20-year period and provide various alternatives for airside and landside development for three pre-designated periods of five, 10 and 20 years. Ultimately, the plan will create our capital improvement program and a potential funding plan.
What do you think about Vision Airlines coming to Northwest Regional? New low cost air service is great for the community. I don’t think it has any more of a negative impact on us than Southwest has had on anybody else. When you bring that service at a low cost, people start thinking about weekend travel and the community benefits. When anyone brings in new service that increases traffic, I say, “Hurrah.” There’s no downside.
Where do you see the airport in five years? I hope we have significantly increased non-stop services to other communities. I see us having more than two carriers operating here. And I see us partnering with the region and all of the agencies so that we’re creating a synergy and making a big impact.
Self description: I’m a likeable guy. I’m energetic. I enjoy meeting and conversing with people. I love to cook and I love drinking wine. Hobbies: I didn’t know how to cook most of my life, so about six years ago my wife, Theresa, got me into a cooking class. That’s where I learned the basics — how to use a knife without cutting yourself, how to make basic sauces, a basic understanding of herbs and spices and, most importantly, how to properly prepare everything before you begin cooking. When I first started cooking, I was intent on following the recipe exactly. Now I have begun substituting and trying my own preferred taste with various recipes. Signature dish: We enjoy making all types of foods and have had a lot of fun trying several Asian recipes. Our friends are always interested in an Asian sensation dinner party at our place. Cooking is such a wonderful way to entertain friends and relax. Downtime: Sleep (he laughs). Right now there’s not a lot of down time. I do love to read a variety of books when time permits and play ball with our toy poodle, Rolo. With such wonderful access to the Gulf of Mexico I believe we will be spending a lot more time on the water and the beaches. In our home in Bonners Ferry, Idaho, a small community about an hour’s drive from Coeur d’Alene, we love to hike, fish, garden and simply enjoy the wonders of nature. Wildlife is abundant and we have moose in the yard, which is wonderful to see but a bit of a problem for the plants. Both Theresa and I are from the intermountain west, so we try to get up to our place as often as possible but no less than twice a year. We both need our periodic fix of high mountain air and cool nights.
What is your ultimate goal for the airport? (Bay County) is an area that is prime for development, and no one else has that in the Panhandle region. Our goal is to operate a safe and secure airport facility that offers competitive rates to our air carriers and creates a partnership with our stakeholders to foster economic development in the region. Overall, we want to develop new air service for the community to encourage business development and tourism growth. Ultimately, I want to have this airport act as a catalyst to improve our quality of life and make air transportation a key ingredient in determining the future success of our service area. I believe this airport is a very big deal to the community and it has unlimited potential if leveraged correctly. We are all very excited about the future.
If you weren’t in the airport business, what would you do? I’ve been in the airport business since 1983. I would stay connected to the airport industry but in a consulting role, staying focused on the things I think I do really well, assisting other agencies in raising the bar in their organization.
What was your first impression of Bay County? The area is beautiful. This is a pretty well kept secret, this part of Florida. The atmosphere and people here are wonderful. I am impressed at how beautiful the water is and how genuine the people here are. What you see is what you get.
What was your first job? I worked for Salt Lake City in the business licensing department for six years. Then I was chief of staff and city administrator. The airport was owned by the city as well. In 1983 I moved to airport finance and administration and became chief operational officer in 1990.
What was your college major? Biology, from the University of Utah. I was very interested in the sciences but was never quite sure what I wanted to do for a career. During my college years I worked as a tile contractor and found the work rewarding and flexible with my schedule, but knew I didn’t want this as a career either. As with any other college student, you finally come to the conclusion that you need to make some money and get started with a career. Over the years I have had the opportunity to pursue additional studies in various areas of management, particularly those involving business process improvement.
How does Florida compare with Salt Lake City? I’ve been a Salt Lake City native for 49 years. It’s a great place to raise a family. It has wonderful recreational opportunities, great mountains, the finest ski resorts in the world. It’s a conservative location, a clean city, pretty hip. I sweat a lot more in Florida. That was one of the biggest shocks I felt coming here, as well as the loss of seasons. But we love the Gulf.
What are some of the first things you did when you moved to Panama City? Theresa and I ate at FireFly restaurant. A new-found friend at the airport took us out boating and we enjoyed the waters at Shell Island. We have already found our favorite breakfast restaurant. And while shopping at an open market in Rosemary Beach, we found a beautiful stained glass mosaic outdoor table with the look of Florida that fits in perfectly on the balcony of the condo. We’re looking forward to exploring the community, finding the fun things to do here and making new friendships.