Northwest Florida's beleaguered Emerald Coast leisure destinations, still reeling from last year's Gulf oil spill, look set to get a lift this spring with a major expansion of low-fare air service in and out of the Fort Walton Beach/Destin area by Vision Airlines.
Atlanta-based Vision will launch commercial flights from 17 markets into Northwest Florida Regional Airport starting March 25 and April 1.
The airport at Fort Walton Beach/Destin -- not to be confused with nearby Northwest Florida Beaches Airport, which opened last March near Panama City, Fla. -- already offers regular scheduled air service, but on regional carriers Continental Express, Delta Connection, US Airways Express and American Eagle.
According to David Meers, COO of commercial operations at Vision Airlines, that usually means cramped regional jets, long layovers, obligatory hub connections and "horrendously" high airfares both for outbound locals and inbound leisure visitors from across the Southeast headed to the area's beaches and golf courses.
By contrast, he said, Vision will fly single-class Boeing 737 jets and Dornier 328 turboprops on its Northwest Florida routes, with introductory one-way fares priced from $79.
"To now offer a nonstop flight on a large 737 -- on which people can bring baggage, and literally be on the beach or playing golf within three hours of leaving their homes -- will be a game-changer for this market, which has historically been a drive-in one."
Starting March 25, Vision starts service to Atlanta, Macon and Savannah in Georgia; Birmingham and Huntsville in Alabama; Baton Rouge, La.; Greenville/Spartanburg, S.C.; Little Rock, Ark.; Knoxville, Tenn.; Louisville, Ky.; and St. Petersburg and Punta Gorda/Fort Myers in Florida.
On April 1, Vision will add flights to Chattanooga, Tenn.; Asheville, N.C.; Columbia, S.C.; Shreveport, La.; and Orlando.
In-flight services include free soft drinks and "salty snacks" for passengers; beer and wine cost $5, while mixed drinks will be $6.
Vision charges for checked baggage -- $10 and $20 for the first and second bags, when paid in advance, or $25 and $30, respectively, when paid at the airport -- but allows carry-on items onboard for free.
Vision may be a low-fare, low-cost carrier, but "we don't have the junk fees that you might find on [other such carriers], which charge you a buck for a Coke," Meers said.
With its focus on the Panhandle-bound leisure traveler, Vision will begin offering vacation packages -- inclusive of accommodations and optional add-on amenities such as spa services and golf tee times -- on its website by April, said Meers.
Aiding and expanding
Giving Northwest Florida a hometown airline will not only help rebuild local tourism -- "decimated," as Meers put it, after the oil spill -- but will grow jobs, too.
"Our airplanes ... will come home to Destin each night," he said. "So we'll be bringing a significant number of jobs with us as we continue to grow service capability across our route network."
Regarding growth, Vision is likely to launch nonstops from Destin to its hometown, Las Vegas, by mid-2011. That would open up the possibility of new routes such as St. Petersburg-Baton Rouge-Las Vegas or Savannah-Destin-Las Vegas.
Looking ahead, Vision may fly to additional cities in the Midwest and Northeast.
"We're a conservative company, so you'll see us grow at a very measured pace to make sure we bring the highest value and highest-quality products to each market," Meers said.