Airport growth beating projections

It’s always a bit tricky trying to forecast growth in passenger traffic, but the
airport made adjustments to accommodate a larger number than predicted.

Connie Baggett
February 2020

While thousands of tourists flock to beaches along the Emerald Coast to enjoy
the blue waves crashing on the gleaming white sands, there is one word on
the mind of the airport director. Construction. Lots of construction.

That’s what the coming year holds for Pensacola International Airport (PNS)
according to airport director Daniel Flynn.

“We started the latest iteration of our strategic plan a couple of years ago,”
Flynn said. “The FAA is finalizing their review now--but two years ago we
could not have forecast growth of 32-33% in passenger volume. We were
forecasting 2-5% growth. If we had said 15-16% they would have laughed at
us,” he said. That trigger point blew by within a few months.

He said consultants build in trigger points at certain breakpoints in growth to
start planning expansion, increased service and other measures to meet
growing demand. The rapid growth in commercial airline travel to the
Northwest Florida area made it a particularly difficult challenge when customer
service is paramount.

“We have been discovered in this region as a wonderful place for vacations,
even a wonderful place to live,” Flynn said. That means tourism growth and
population growth is driving air travel to Pensacola, Fort Walton and Panama
City. Due to a healthy economy, more disposable income, “there is more
business. People come to enjoy the beaches, they come here to live
permanently and travel often. We are just doing our best to keep up.”

Flynn said all that growth will translate into upgrades to the terminal to meet
higher traffic, expanded surface parking areas and long-range additional
garage parking. In fact, he said, valet parking will be coming online soon. All
these changes will mean additional staff for the airport, he said.

“Customer service is where it all starts and ends for us,” he said. “We have to
accommodate the increasing demand with more parking, and enough staff to
be sure travelers have a positive first and last impression. As the airport gets
busier, it takes a lot more effort on our part. We will need to take additional
steps to ensure all our travelers have a very uneventful experience. That’s the
goal.” But the rise in air travel is only one facet of the growth at PNS.

Located smack in the middle of sprawling military bases of Northwest Florida,
construction should be underway soon on the second phase of a $210 million
economic development tied to aerospace technology: ST Engineering
Maintenance Repair Overhaul Center. The first hangar was completed in
2018, and the second is in the design/development with completion of
construction anticipated in 2021.

“This project is a generational change-maker for the region,” Flynn said. With
two more hangars planned, the business helps diversify the local economy
beyond military and tourism bases. “This brings an industry back to the area
that left in the 1990s. Naval aviation jobs left, but now we have a large
operation serving air carrier aircraft and transport.” Flynn said the first hangar
opened with UPS as its launch customer. Now, he said, the service is
expanded to multiple airlines. The last two hangars will cover up to 200,000
square feet each.

With the soaring growth for the airport, Flynn said the airlines that utilize the
airport are pleased and continue to expand product and service levels. But
beyond commercial flights, ST Engineering’s current phase includes about
400 jobs and cutting edge robotic technology. Once all the new hangars are
up and running, Flynn said, some 1,325 jobs will be added to the local

The second phase got a financial boost last year from the U.S. Department of
Commerce to the tune of $12.25 million, matched by the state and local
governments matching with $36 million.

Just a year ago, the Florida Department of Transportation increased its
contribution toward the project by $25 million for a total of $45 million. That
funding should arrive in next year if approved by the legislature. The project
has been awarded a total of $66 million from Triumph Gulf Coast, the
organization in charge of distributing funding from the 2010 BP oil spill

Add to the ST Engineering project another win for PNS, Blue Air Training--a
military close air support training company. Pensacola is the fourth site for the
approved instructors with other centers in Las Vegas, Yuma, and Oklahoma
City. The company trains Air Force attack controllers and fighter pilots using A-
90 Raiders, BAC-167 Strike Masters, IAR-823 Brasovs and AH-5 Little Birds.

“We never rest,” he said. “We are always working on air service development,
economic development and expanding in many directions. These projects are
huge on their own, but add to these the multiple support businesses that come
along with them. We are economic development,” and it looks like the sky’s
the limit.

Airports key players in region's economy

More than 40 commercial and general aviation airport are located throughout
the Gulf Coast region, and combined they play a major role in economic

The airports range from multi-runway commercial airports with scheduled
flights and cargo service to small airfields used by weekend pilots and sky

The region has one of the newest airports in the nation - Northwest Florida
Beaches International Airport near Panama City Fla. It also has one in Mobile,
Ala., that’s shifting passenger traffic from one airport west of the city to
another not far from downtown. There’s even one airport looking to become a

The mix includes military runways used by training aircraft, as well as the most
lethal, advanced, high-tech aircraft the world has ever seen. The largest
aircraft in the world can use some of the airports in the region.

While some of the airports have a reach that’s primarily local, others have an
impact well beyond their local area. They generate revenue and jobs, and
have a ripple effect on businesses that have nothing to do with aviation.

And with economic development professionals looking to draw more
aerospace and aviation activities to the region, airports are some of the most
important magnets.

In Florida alone, airports had a $175 billion total impact on the state’s
economy, reported a 2019 study by the Florida Department of Transportation.
It includes the combined aviation-related activities, like on-airport activity,
visitor spending, industry reliance and military spending. District 3 that
includes 15 Northwest Florida counties generated $9 billion from the aviation
industry, the study said.

For the aerospace-focused Gulf Coast region, they have an immediate impact
on the economy and each has the potential to grow the economy even more.

- Gulf Coast Reporters League
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