Friday, March 9, 2007

New Airline to Area?

From the Nortwest Florida Daily News
Mar 9, 2007

Airline being wooed to area

Travel by defense contractors could be key to luring Southwest, officials say


Business travel could be the key to convincing Southwest Airlines to land its service at Okaloosa Regional Airport.

Local chambers of commerce have teamed up with the Economic Development Council of Okaloosa County to survey local companies about how often they travel and where.

"We determined that those are the type of numbers that might give Southwest a better feel of what potential business might be," said EDC president Larry Sassano. "We haven't crunched the numbers in terms of impact, but we're getting a very, very strong response."

The Niceville-Valparaiso and Fort Walton Beach chambers are participating in the survey.

"I think Southwest needs to know that the people want them to be here," said Peggy Brockman, chairwoman of the Greater Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce.

Another airline would expand travel options, Brockman said.

"It would allow the rates to be more competitive on all the airlines," she said. "More people would have access to coming here from different destinations. It's a two-way street."

The chambers and the EDC plan to compile the results in the coming weeks and present them to airport officials.

"We're trying to overcome their typical business model," explained Jerry Sealy, Okaloosa County's airports director. "What (Okaloosa County) shows is a median income of about $30,000 to $35,000. That's not a lot of funds for flying, so we're showing them the business community will pick up that slack."

Sassano agreed, noting that the area's strong military ties generate significant business travel.

"You've got 300-plus defense contractors doing business somewhere," he said. "That's a tremendous market right there."

Sealy said he and his staff communicate with Southwest weekly to keep them updated.

"We've been after them, you know, for eight or nine years," he said. "I think we have a really good opportunity here."

The five daily flights that Southwest is considering would generate an additional 70,000 to 100,000 passengers at the airport annually.

"We know that if they do come here, our business will probably triple overnight," added Terry Curry, Okaloosa Regional's operations manager.

Southwest officials last visited the area in December.

"We made a good impression," Curry said. "They were very up front about that."

Curry said Southwest was pleased with Okaloosa Regional's facility and its potential to expand by three new gates and 22 acres for future car rental space.

The key to drawing Southwest will be selling it on a wider area than an individual city, Sealy said.

"What we're trying for them to get their hands around is to come to the Emerald Coast... that being anywhere from Panama City to Pensacola."

Daily News Business Editor Kari C.

Barlow can be reached at 863-1111,

Ext. 439.


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