UPDATE: The opening of a new airport has been a rare occurrence in this country for decades. Just as rare is Southwest Airlines reason for starting service to the latest addition to its route map. The two came together yesterday at Panama City, Fla., where the Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport opened with service by Southwest and Delta Air Lines (Delta previously flew to a smaller local airport). Southwest was lured to the airport by a deal with The St. Joe Co., a massive real estate developer that donated 4,000 acres of land for the airport.
Southwest decided to start flights to four cities (Baltimore, Houston, Nashville and Orlando) from the airport after St. Joe agreed to cover operating losses for three years. That kind of offer to airlines to start service to a city isn't unusal at all. Smaller airports in our region, in Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, have helped airlines financially as a way for them to offer some service, anything, to help as the major carriers cut back flights. Many cities have tried to do the same to lure Southwest, but this is the first time the discounter has accepted one of the offers. Read more about Southwest's rationale in this Dallas Morning News story.
UPDATE: For PHL fliers to reach the "Redneck Riviera" as locals sometimes call it, with its miles of spectacular white-sand beaches, you will have to go to BWI for nonstops, or connect through Atlanta on Delta, or through Nashville or Orlando on Southwest. So far, the big BP oil spill in the gulf hasn't affected the region's beaches, according to a message I received Monday afternoon from a local p.r. agency.
Incidentally, the official announcement of the airport opening calls it the first "international" airport to open in the nation in 15 years. That's technically accurate but stretches the truth. The airport has no international service yet, and may never. In the meantime, a new privately financed airport with commercial airline service opened at Branson, Mo., less than two years ago.