POLL: SW Fla. International looks to add more direct flights

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Southwest Florida International Airport

11000 Terminal Access Road, Fort Myers, FL

— So long layovers?

If all goes as planned, travelers may have more nonstop flights to and from Southwest Florida International Airport.

The Airports Special Management Committee, which advises the Lee County Port Authority Board of Port Commissioners, agreed Tuesday to recommend expanding incentives for airlines that bring new nonstop flights to more cities.

Nonstop flights make traveling to and from the Fort Myers airport more desirable, said spokeswoman Victoria Moreland, and those travelers spend money in the airport and at local businesses.

“You are competing, of course, with all other airports,” Moreland said. “One of the things that stand out (to airlines) as a destination: Are your costs low?”

The incentive on the table is a waiver, in part or in full, of airport landing fees. It’s the weight-based charge airlines pay to cover the cost of such things as landing strip maintenance and lights.

A common plane, such as the Boeing 737 or Airbus A320, pays about $365 per landing, Moreland said.

“The more nonstop flights the better,” said Eddie Oppelt, a North Fort Myers resident. “You don’t have to fight with layovers, getting off the plane, waiting and then getting back on.”

Oppelt said he would drive to Miami if Fort Myers didn’t have a direct flight to Atlantic City, N.J.

“I would love it if Southwest Airlines had a nonstop to Islip,” said Carolann Thorn, who lives in Port Charlotte. “I don’t have to get off the plane, but I have to wait for people to board.”

Thorn said she would even pay more for a ticket if it was a nonstop flight.

Waiving the fees won’t come at a cost to the Port Authority, though, because the airlines are responsible for making sure there is enough money in the pot. That means other flights that don’t qualify for or take advantage of the incentives make up the difference with their landing fees.

The incentive program is a win for the Port Authority, according to Benjamin Siegel, deputy executive director of administration.

With the current incentive program launched in 2002, an additional 2,800 flights carried 425,000 more seats and generated an additional net profit of $4.5 million.

There are no projections for the revenues that could be generated if the board approves the recommendation at its Sept. 14 meeting.

The committee agreed with Siegel that the program should be expanded to try to draw more benefits in a challenging and competitive economy.

“In today’s economy, you talk to an airline about serving a market, the first words out of their mouth is, ‘what are you going to give me,’” he said. “There are airports out there that will pretty much give away the farm. ... We’re not interested in buying the airlines. We’re interested in sharing the risk.”

The proposed programs would be rolled out to more cities -- the airport’s top 150 destinations instead of just the top 40 cities as it is now, Siegel said.

That brings into the mix domestic stops such as San Francisco, Seattle and Lansing, Mich., as well as international destinations, including London and Puerto Rico.

The airport hosts nonstop flights to 37 cities already, including two international destinations. Those cities, including the airport’s top three destinations, New York, Chicago and Detroit, won’t qualify for the program.

Airlines that bring a new nonstop destination to Fort Myers would have several ways to qualify for fee waivers under the proposal that would be good for the next five years.

For instance, a 50 percent discount off landing fees would be available for flights that run at least once a week for a minimum of four months for the first two years. After two years, the incentive is a full waiver if the service is continued year-round.

International flights could qualify for no landing fees if the airline keeps the nonstop route for three years.

The measure was approved with little discussion, but committee chairwoman Fran Myers asked if the program, proposed to run for five more years, could be adjusted, to which Siegel said it could.

* * * * *

Follow reporter Tara E. McLaughlin at Facebook.com/tara.dailynews and Twitter.com/ndn_tmclaughlin.

© 2009 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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