Panama City Beach — Traffic at the Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport still is exceeding expectations as the facility moves into the New Year, officials said.
Despite the customary slow winter months, the airport passenger count is running about three times more than the number of passengers through the old airport in Panama City, according to airport executive director Randy Curtis.
On Monday morning, about a half-mile from the terminal, the traffic was so heavy that dozens of cars were parked in a temporary long-term overflow parking lot near the woods and in the grass beyond the airport’s access road.
From the airport’s grand opening on May 23 though Nov. 30, the airport has “handled” 446,135 passengers, almost three times the 160,000 passengers who passed through the old airport over the same period last year, Curtis said. “Overall, the report is very positive,” Curtis recently told airport board members. “We are still running three times over the old airport.” The trend is expected to continue through the end of the year and into the spring.
Curtis said 65,155 total commercial passengers moved through the new airport in November, compared to 22,977 passengers at the old airport in 2009, an increase of nearly 184 percent.
The biggest boost to the November numbers was from Southwest Airlines, which did not operate at the old airport. Southwest recorded 17,553 outgoing passengers and 17,353 arriving passengers for November.
Delta Air Lines saw a 36 percent increase in outgoing passengers for November 2010 over November 2009, 15,608 versus 11,476, according to figures Curtis supplied board members. This included passengers for both Delta and its regional carriers.
Curtis said one indication of strong traffic at the new airport has been that demand for parking has far exceeded the short- and long-term parking lot capacity of 697 spaces initially installed. During the Thanksgiving holiday period, for instance, a total of 1,547 cars parked in the two existing paved lots and the temporary overflow areas, Curtis said. The airport is in the process of accepting bids for additional parking at the new airport. The old airport had capacity for just 330 cars.
Curtis said passenger loads on Southwest planes have been averaging about 64 percent, while Delta has been averaging about 76 percent, and he expected a jump in traffic during the Christmas holidays “and again in the spring.”
Jerry Eyler with Best Panama City Beach Condo Rentals www.bestpanamacitybeachcondo.com said that even though the traffic is up he wants to see the Southwest load factors continue to increase to the 80% range. Eyler said the new airport has had a positive impact on the condo rental business in Panama City Beach in 2010 and is expecting an even larger impact in 2011.
According to airport officials, monthly passenger traffic at the new airport now surpasses the Tallahassee Regional Airport and Northwest Florida Regional Airport in Okaloosa County.
In addition, the airport near West Bay offers more seats on departing flights than airports in Sarasota/Bradenton, Key West, Daytona Beach, Melbourne, Gainesville and St. Petersburg, officials said.