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New Fla. Panhandle airport slow to draw passengers

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In this Dec. 3, 2010 photo,  passengers wait outside the Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport in Panama City, Fla.  There's no bustle at this new international airport in the Florida Panhandle: Many flights have empty seats, the security line's

In this Dec. 3, 2010 photo, passengers wait outside the Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport in Panama City, Fla. There’s no bustle at this new international airport in the Florida Panhandle: Many flights have empty seats, the security line’s a breeze, and ticket agents outnumber passengers at times.

Melissa Nelson, Associated Press

PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. — There's no bustle at this new international airport in the Florida Panhandle: Many flights have empty seats, the security line's a breeze and ticket agents outnumber passengers at times.

Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport opened in May, soon after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. It sits on 4,000 acres donated by the St. Joe Co., a land developer that's hoping one day to transform another 72,000 acres of surrounding pine and swampy forests into a bustling tourism and aerospace corridor.

The airport offers 19 daily flights on Delta and Southwest to Atlanta, Baltimore, Houston, Memphis, Nashville and Orlando, but those flights were only about 60 percent full on average in October — compared to a national average of 83 percent.

Some see weak passenger numbers as a sign the airport should never have been built.

There's even speculative talk that Southwest may pull out when its three-year deal with St. Joe expires in 2013: The airline has a $1.42 billion deal to acquire AirTran, which flies to Pensacola, the Florida Panhandle's most-populated region.

Southwest spokeswoman Christi McNeill says the airline is committed to the airport, but declined to discuss specifics.

Meanwhile, grumbling about the airport by detractors continues.

"There was never a transportation need for that airport," said Linda Young, director of the Clean Water Network of Florida and a longtime foe. "This was always a real-estate deal."

St. Joe, a former timber company, says it envisions creating a future aerospace hub capitalizing on the Panhandle's many military bases and on making the area a world-class tourism destination, based on the region's pristine white sands.

Skimpy passenger numbers haven't deterred the airport's boosters.

"The passenger numbers we are seeing now are very much in line with what we had expected," said Dan Rowe, president of the Panama City Convention and Visitors Bureau. He said he expects passenger volume to rise gradually.

Not that the Gulf oil spill exactly helped.

Industry analysts say the airport's May 23 opening — one month after the BP's Deepwater Horizon well exploded in the Gulf and began sending oil globs toward Florida's Gulf beaches — is partly to blame for the sluggish first six months.

Now the visitors bureau and Southwest plan a winter tourism campaign hoping to bolster passenger numbers from the Northeast.

Indeed, the airport is inviting with its views of secluded pine forests and a 30-minute drive to prime beach retreats.

Frequent flyer Phyllis Clark relishes the airport's slower pace.

"I feel like I've stepped back in time. This is great. There aren't any crowds," Clark said, rolling her suitcase down an empty airport sidewalk.

St. Joe CEO Britton Greene told The Associated Press in June that the opening in the midst of the oil spill "couldn't have come at worse time."

But Greene said recently that his vision of turning the Panama City region into Florida's next hot spot for development remains unchanged.

In October 2009, St. Joe and Southwest announced an agreement to bring the low-cost carrier to the new airport.

The land developer said it would pay the airline's fuel costs if Southwest fails to break even on ticket purchases during the first three years. The developer's stock jumped 6 percent when the deal was announced, and continued to rise despite Florida's slumping economy.

The company's stock reached $36.62 a share the same April week the BP well exploded. It later plunged lower. Yet Green sounded upbeat in a recent conference call, touting the airport's ability to handle future business for companies on its 10,000-foot international runway.

Airline industry analyst George Hamlin, managing director of the ACA Associates consulting firm in Virginia, said maintaining Southwest's service appears key to the airport's development.

"Having an international runway is very advantageous for charter flights and for cargo service and Southwest is the top airline in the nation," Hamlin noted.

But Mike Boyd, an aviation consultant hired by Southwest's pilots this year to study the effect of different Southwest acquisition scenarios, said the airline could scale back service before the fuel subsidy ends if the passengers aren't there.

He said passenger loads of less than 60 percent don't make sense for any airline.

Panama City-area resident Robert Parrott lit a cigarette outside the terminal one day while awaiting a ride after a "real empty" flight home. Inside, the only apparent traveler in the mostly empty terminal quickly retrieved his ticket from a computer kiosk and entered a security checkpoint with no line.

Parrott said he's all for the new airport and hopes it brings jobs, adding, "I think it's a good deal."