With the new airport wet on their lips, all the local and not so local media has been eating up the “airport wars” stories that have been ensuing over the battle for Southwest Airlines. Today, it would seem, that everyone is vying for them; everyone in Northwest Florida, that is. In fact, in the last 60 days alone, all of a sudden VPS (or Northwest Florida Regional Airport in Ft. Walton) and Pensacola Gulf Coast Regional Airport have made very public efforts to woo Southwest in their direction.
Today, at a YP@TheBeach (Young Professionals AT The Beach) luncheon we had the great pleasure of listening to Representative Jimmy Patronis describe how he grew as a Young Professional into his career in politics. Jimmy, as always, it was great to see you. I asked about the progress with Southwest Airlines and whether we were any closer to seeing a commitment from them to come to our new airport. The short answer is below, but let me spell out the long answer as he did to us, as it is definitely worth telling.
This area needs it.
Southwest Airlines’ flight destination plan is laid out in a mesh-style pattern. Picture circles all over the US in which their radius is about a 5 hour drive. Right now, you’ll see an airport that services Southwest right in the middle of each make-believe circle. Of course, this is only applicable in areas with a particular and significant population size. Right now, there is a Southwest airport in New Orleans, Jackson MS, Birmingham, Jacksonville, Orlando, and Tampa, but a void in our little stretch of the country. In order for them to keep with their mesh-style plan, they need one in our part of the country.
Pensacola won’t work.
Right now, servicing Pensacola is Air Tran, a great low-cost carrier. Often times they offer great competitive rates to most large cities and many smaller cities a lot of the time, non-stop. Pensacola is also about 200 miles from New Orleans, or within about a 2.5 to 3 hour drive – really too close to be considered not a competitional threat to existing operations in southern Louisiana. In addition, as it was explained to me, Southwest counts the number of street lights you have to go through to get into the airport and weighs that in regarding ease of access. As I understand it, Pensacola is not easy for travelers to come into.
Just students and government folk in Tallahassee.
If you think about who is coming and going in Tallahassee, there’s not much need for a low cost carrier to service that destination. They have adequate flights coming and going and the traffic to that destination isn’t likely to change because of a new airport. The future travel growth there has no real upward potential.
Dothan’s great, but they have no need either.
Same story, different location. There’s a lot of great people, great industry, and great money, but who’s traveling there, how much are the people there traveling out, and what is the future potential for travel growth for Dothan, Alabama.
Despite what they say, Ft. Walton just can’t handle Southwest Airlines.
This is the big one folks, and it isn’t likely to make our neighbors to the west of here very happy, but these are the facts. The Ft. Walton Airport, aka Northwest Florida Regional Airport, aka VPS is sharing their on-ground and in-air operations with the Department of Defense. This shared arrangement limits their flight operations to 100 total flights per day; that’s 50 flights in and 50 flights out. Currently they are using 60% of their daily operational capacity. Why in the world would a company as successful as Southwest Airlines come into an environment where right off the bat they would be limited as to what their future potential growth at that airport could be.
You see, it is all about the future. This is where so many opponents to the airport have missed the mark in their arguments. They focus on operations right now at the current airport and say we’re under capacity. Well, yeah, of course we are. Have you checked to see how much it costs to fly in and out of here lately? If we had a carrier that could bring low cost airfare to our neck of the woods, don’t you think we would get that business that drives to Dothan, Tallahassee and Northwest Florida Regional? What’s that you say? No numbers of real importance actually travel 1 to 2 hours away to save on airfare. Wanna bet?
At the new airport, Southwest has unlimited potential for future growth. Furthermore, I’d be willing to bet that they could have significant influence on how infrastructure is laid out at the new facility to best suit their needs. Furthermore still, they have $2.2 million each year to back any advertising to help drive people to use their service to fly to Panama City. In addition to all that, there is very likely to be a huge demand in travel to our destination over the next couple of years as many of the areas that could not travel here before can now get here with ease. And, to cap it all off, we are right smack dab in the middle of one of the concentric circles that virtually map out where each airport servicing Southwest Airlines will be.
Southwest Airlines was referred to as the “golden goose” of airlines in this morning’s paper because despite the tumultuous times in the airline industry, they, for the most part, have remained in the black. Their business model and growth plan fits perfectly with the ideals of Panama City and we would make a perfect fit for their next step. Hundreds of thousands of people have yet to discover the marvel that is Panama City Beach and that business is not only ripe for the picking by our area, but also Southwest Airlines.