Southwest will be Landing in Panama City on May 23!

Bay County lands Southwest // VIDEO, PHOTOS, DOCUMENT
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Low-cost carrier to begin service in May from Panama City to 4 destinations
October 21, 2009 01:10:00 PM
By PAT KELLY / News Herald Writer

WEST BAY — Beach balls were tossed aloft, pom-poms waved and hundreds stood and cheered Wednesday in the unfinished terminal of the airport construction site near West Bay as Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly announced via streaming video that his low-cost airline was coming to Bay County.

“This is the largest airline story in Northwest Florida right now,” Airport Authority member Rick Koehnemann said. “This is like winning the Super Bowl.”

Kelly announced the decision to bring the nation’s largest domestic carrier to the new Northwest Florida-Panama City International Airport, set to open May 18, from the company’s headquarters in Dallas. He called the area an “underserved, overpriced tourist gem.”

“We have been overwhelmed by the energy Panhandle residents put on Southwest to come to their region,” Kelly said during his video address. “It was very, very clear they wanted us. We are so flattered by that.”

Bob Montgomery, Southwest’s vice president of properties, told the local crowd that current plans call for eight non-stop flights a day from four different cities, totaling about 2,000 passengers per day coming into the new airport.

“I’m just so happy to be here and so happy that this day has finally come,” Montgomery said, noting that the airline would help make the region more accessible to a broader market across the country.

Dana Williams, Southwest director of marketing, said no decision had been made on specific cities. Some of the cities Southwest serves include Nashville, Tenn., Baltimore/Washington, Orlando, Dallas, Houston and Chicago.

Panhandle airport officials and private groups in Pensacola, Fort Walton Beach and Panama City had been competing fiercely to bring Southwest Airlines to their respective airports, including businesses and individuals offering “in-kind” monetary pledges.

Greg Donovan, Okaloosa County’s airports director, said the entire region will benefit from having Southwest Airlines at the new Panama City airport.

“Certainly we would have loved to have them at our airport, but there are other possibilities,” Donovan said.

Montgomery specifically thanked the St. Joe Co. “for bringing Southwest Airlines to the Panhandle.”

St. Joe filed documents with the Securities and Exchange Commission on Wednesday that outlined an agreement to make quarterly payments to Southwest for its first three years of service in the event Southwest operates at a loss, up to $14 million the first year and $12 million the second year.

The covenant “provides that Southwest’s profits from the air service during the term of the agreement will be shared with St. Joe up to the maximum amount of St. Joe’s prior break even payments,” according to the filing.

The agreement between St. Joe and Southwest also stipulates the carrier will not begin service in the next three years to other airports within 80 miles of the new Panama City airport.

St. Joe President Britt Greene praised the “professionalism” of Southwest and said attempts to land the carrier had been a regional effort.

“Today, we are all changing the destiny of Northwest Florida,” Greene said.

Florida Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp, who was at the West Bay event along with officials from both Bay and Walton counties, said the decision by Southwest to become a part of the new airport had “forever changed” the landscape of the Panhandle.

“People will look back on this day as a real turning point in the community,” he said.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., a leading advocate of the new airport, said the Panhandle has much to offer both Southwest and the rest of the country. “I know that as more and more people and businesses learn about the area, we’ll attract even more jobs and opportunities.”

The gathering at the airport site Wednesday had been advertised as a briefing on construction and marketing updates, but little was discussed other than the Southwest announcement.

“This is a watershed day for Northwest Florida,” Airport Authority Vice Chairman Bill Cramer said. “We are going to look back one day and see this as the day everything changed.”

Airport Authority Chairman Joe Tannehill said the new airport grew from talks among local officials 10 years ago, when the area’s current airport was losing flights and carriers were leaving.

To grow business and economic development, the region needed an “epicenter, like the new airport,” around which the area could grow. And the addition of a low-cost carrier always had been one of the primary goals, he said. “Low-fare service will turbocharge our regional tourism industry and economic development efforts,” he said.

“Southwest’s presence at the new airport will bring numerous economic benefits to the area, including new jobs and incentives for small business development,” agreed Rep. Allen Boyd, D-Monticello.

News Herald Writer Matt Dixon and Florida Freedom Newspapers Writer Dusty Ricketts contributed to this story.

Southwest at a glance

— Southwest Airlines will begin service to Panama City (PFN) in May.

—The low-cost airline will fly from Panama City to four cities, with up to two flights to each city per day.

—Tickets to the four cities will go on sale in December. The four cities have not yet been confirmed.

— Southwest serves cities from coast to coast.

— Southwest brings cheaper fares and bags-fly-free policy. The airline’s average airfare is $114.

— Tourism, political and business officials say the airline will help bring in more businesses and tourists.

— The St. Joe Co. into an agreement with Southwest Airlines. Under the deal, Southwest cannot begin service to any other airports within 80 miles of PFN for three years.

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