WEST BAY — Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly officially announced Wednesday the low-cost carrier will begin service to the new Northwest Florida-Panama City International Airport when it opens in May. Tickets will go on sale in December.
Kelly’s announcement came shortly after 1 p.m. Wednesday live via “streaming video” as part of Southwest’s media day from Dallas, about 15 minutes after the start of the a Panama City briefing attended by local business leaders and government officials. Kelly said the airline will bring an all-Boeing 737 fleet and the company’s bags-fly-free policy.
“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.”
Southwest will fly up to eight daily flights, Kelly said. Nashville, Tenn., and Baltimore-Washington International in Maryland will be the destinations.
Speaking about the current airline situation in the Panhandle, Kelly said the region was an “underserved, overpriced tourist gem. … It sees 16 million visitors by car each year.”
Kelly said the company is entering into a strategic alliance with the St. Joe Co., which donated the land for the new airport.
The St. Joe agreement will “ensure Southwest will break even for the first three years, which reduces the risk profile that is typically associated with opening new markets,” Kelly said.
Local and state leaders were meeting at the airport for the expressed purpose of hearing an update on construction progress and airline marketing efforts, but Southwest’s announcement had been anticipated.
The new airport is set to open in May, and Kelly’s confirmation answers one of several questions still remaining, such as whether a low-cost carrier like Southwest Airlines is coming to the West Bay location.
Officials and business leaders in Pensacola, Okaloosa County and Panama City have been courting the coveted carrier for months, citing lower fares that can bring in more tourists and businesses.
“The Panhandle has so much to recommend it,” said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla. and a leading advocate of the new airport serving the region. “I know that as more and more people and businesses learn about the area, we’ll attract even more jobs and opportunities.”