5 Reasons it Makes Sense that Southwest Comes to Panama City

by September 19, 2009 • 37 comments

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With the new airport wet on their lips, all the local and not so local media has been eating up the “airport wars” stories that have been ensuing over the battle for Southwest Airlines.  Today, it would seem, that everyone is vying for them; everyone in Northwest Florida, that is.  In fact, in the last 60 days alone, all of a sudden VPS (or Northwest Florida Regional Airport in Ft. Walton) and Pensacola Gulf Coast Regional Airport have made very public efforts to woo Southwest in their direction.

Today, at a YP@TheBeach (Young Professionals AT The Beach) luncheon we had the great pleasure of listening to Representative Jimmy Patronis describe how he grew as a Young Professional into his career in politics. Jimmy, as always, it was great to see you. I asked about the progress with Southwest Airlines and whether we were any closer to seeing a commitment from them to come to our new airport.  The short answer is below, but let me spell out the long answer as he did to us, as it is definitely worth telling.

This area needs it.

Southwest Airlines’ flight destination plan is laid out in a mesh-style pattern.  Picture circles all over the US in which their radius is about a 5 hour drive.  Right now, you’ll see an airport that services Southwest right in the middle of each make-believe circle.  Of course, this is only applicable in areas with a particular and significant population size.  Right now, there is a Southwest airport in New Orleans, Jackson MS, Birmingham, Jacksonville, Orlando, and Tampa, but a void in our little stretch of the country.  In order for them to keep with their mesh-style plan, they need one in our part of the country.

Pensacola won’t work.

Right now, servicing Pensacola is Air Tran, a great low-cost carrier.  Often times they offer great competitive rates to most large cities and many smaller cities a lot of the time, non-stop.  Pensacola is also about 200 miles from New Orleans, or within about a 2.5 to 3 hour drive – really too close to be considered not a competitional threat to existing operations in southern Louisiana.  In addition, as it was explained to me, Southwest counts the number of street lights you have to go through to get into the airport and weighs that in regarding ease of access.  As I understand it, Pensacola is not easy for travelers to come into.

Just students and government folk in Tallahassee.

If you think about who is coming and going in Tallahassee, there’s not much need for a low cost carrier to service that destination.  They have adequate flights coming and going and the traffic to that destination isn’t likely to change because of a new airport.  The future travel growth there has no real upward potential.

Dothan’s great, but they have no need either.

Same story, different location.  There’s a lot of great people, great industry, and great money, but who’s traveling there, how much are the people there traveling out, and what is the future potential for travel growth for Dothan, Alabama.

Despite what they say, Ft. Walton just can’t handle Southwest Airlines.

This is the big one folks, and it isn’t likely to make our neighbors to the west of here very happy, but these are the facts.  The Ft. Walton Airport, aka Northwest Florida Regional Airport, aka VPS is sharing their on-ground and in-air operations with the Department of Defense.  This shared arrangement limits their flight operations to 100 total flights per day; that’s 50 flights in and 50 flights out.  Currently they are using 60% of their daily operational capacity.  Why in the world would a company as successful as Southwest Airlines come into an environment where right off the bat they would be limited as to what their future potential growth at that airport could be.

You see, it is all about the future.  This is where so many opponents to the airport have missed the mark in their arguments.  They focus on operations right now at the current airport and say we’re under capacity.  Well, yeah, of course we are.  Have you checked to see how much it costs to fly in and out of here lately?  If we had a carrier that could bring low cost airfare to our neck of the woods, don’t you think we would get that business that drives to Dothan, Tallahassee and Northwest Florida Regional?  What’s that you say?  No numbers of real importance actually travel 1 to 2 hours away to save on airfare.  Wanna bet?

At the new airport, Southwest has unlimited potential for future growth.  Furthermore, I’d be willing to bet that they could have significant influence on how infrastructure is laid out at the new facility to best suit their needs.  Furthermore still, they have $2.2 million each year to back any advertising to help drive people to use their service to fly to Panama City.  In addition to all that, there is very likely to be a huge demand in travel to our destination over the next couple of years as many of the areas that could not travel here before can now get here with ease. And, to cap it all off, we are right smack dab in the middle of one of the concentric circles that virtually map out where each airport servicing Southwest Airlines will be.

Southwest Airlines was referred to as the “golden goose” of airlines in this morning’s paper because despite the tumultuous times in the airline industry, they, for the most part, have remained in the black.  Their business model and growth plan fits perfectly with the ideals of Panama City and we would make a perfect fit for their next step.  Hundreds of thousands of people have yet to discover the marvel that is Panama City Beach and that business is not only ripe for the picking by our area, but also Southwest Airlines.

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1 Jason Koertge September 19, 2009 at 10:03 am

Thanks Jimmy for the great background info. As always, it was great to see you!

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2 PCBLee September 19, 2009 at 1:51 pm

At a recent GRASI meeting Eglin officials said they would grant additional commercial flights to VPS as needed. So, restricted growth would not be a problem for Southwest at VPS. In addition, the “arrangement” on Eglin keeps the airlines operational costs the lowest of all airports in NW Florida, something highly looked at by a low cost carrier like Southwest.

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3 Christine September 19, 2009 at 8:26 pm

I live in Philadelphia. Right now I come to PCB 2-3 times per year to visit and must use Pensacola Airport to take advantage of the Air Tran lower fares.

We are hoping that Southwest will be the prime carrier for the new PCB International Airport and if so, we will most likely double our visits to PCB each year. It’s not convenient or cost effective to fly into the current PCB Airport or into Ft Walton Beach Airport from Philly. So Pensacola is our only choice using Air Tran.

Imagine the huge increases in tourism to PCB when the new airport opens with Southwest as the primary carrier. PCB has the potential to be the next Orlando! The new International Airport is the number one reason why we chose to buy investment property in PCB!! We want Southwest!!!!!!!!!

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4 Sharon Ernst September 25, 2009 at 4:51 pm

I totally agree! We visit 2-3 times a year from Louisville, KY. When I travel I always want Southwest first anyway! I can’t count the number of people in Louisville that will use Southwest if they come to Panama City Beach! We are all waiting anxiously for them to commit so we can visit more often! Right now it is not worth paying the airline fees because from door to door it doesn’t save that much time to fly versus driving our cars.

If they commit I envision many more long week-ends in Panama City Beach for me!

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5 Bearabull September 20, 2009 at 10:08 am

How about direct flight with US Air.

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6 Zazu September 20, 2009 at 3:57 pm

That sounds wonderful! Right now we come from NY 2 times a year looking for the best deal- usually out of PNS- with any carrier! Even though working for Delta right now- free air! It would make everyone come down even more

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7 mitch warren September 21, 2009 at 2:15 pm

Jason, the other obvious reason that PCB would be the better location is the traffic flow. It takes a good hour and a half from the airport to get to many parts of Destin in the summer. God help the person who decides to get to Destin via Fort Walton, that person will spend his entire day sitting in traffic on 98. From the PCB airport site, the Sandestin area is only 30 minutes away, as well as servicing the areas of 30A within minutes with smooth traffic flow and minimal stops. there is just no good way to the beach from the airport unless you are intending to go to FWB or Navarre from the Valparaiso (Eglin) Airport. I would think the Destin vacationers would GREATLY prefer the drive from PCB to Destin rather than fight the snarled traffic in FWB, Hwy 98 through Destin, or through Niceville and the toll bridge.

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8 diane September 22, 2009 at 7:59 am

“PCB has the potential to be the next Orlando!”

What a scary thought.

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9 Cara Dee September 22, 2009 at 8:24 am

Its odd that anyone would think folks wouldnt drive an hour or hour and a half to get to an economical flight…I drive five hours one-way to get to Jax just so my kids can get an inexpensive and DIRECT flight…on Southwest! I do this, back and forth, 4-6 times a year so you can bet, it will definately be worth it to lots of folks, but especially me, as I am a pcb resident! I just wish they would hurry up, LOL

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10 Traveling Terri September 22, 2009 at 8:41 am

We bought a winter home in PCB because of the new airport and the hope that SOMEONE would fly direct from Chicago. We like Southwest Airlines and would love to see them offer a flight back and forth even once a day. Maybe someone should send all the encouraging blogs to Southwest Air to show our interest! (We have four kids, their four spouses, and eight grandkids, that would come out once a year!)

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11 Carolyn King September 22, 2009 at 8:46 am

When they select the name for the new airport I hope they leave the three words (Panama City Beach) out of the name. Many people if not all Americans associate those three words with a Drunken College Kids playground.

The saying “It’s all in a name” is very important here. Let the new airport name reflect beauty instead of uglyness. Let it become the gateway that will introduce the entire North Gulf Coast Shoreline of Florida to travelers everywhere. Let the new airport put out a welcome mat that says to families North Florida and Bay County welcome you to a wonderful FAMILY Vacation Destination.

It would be great to have direct flights from the Northern States coming into the new airport. This would make travel easier for families with children.

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12 Shaun Mulligan September 22, 2009 at 9:00 am

Southwest Airlines would help validate the cost for the $300+ Million dollar airport. One of the main emphasis to build the new airport is to be able to provide low cost airfare to and from Panama City area.

The New Airport (to be named later) is going to benefit residents and business’s in a 50+ mile radius of the airport. As the economy slowly starts to rebound from this past year’s downturn. Many people are going to be very frugal in how they spend there money for travel expenses and if they should decide to fly or drive to their destination.

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13 Tony May September 22, 2009 at 9:17 am

Delta and NWA have been the primary carriers at(PFN)Bay County. Now that they have combined to form one company, we need someone like Southwest to keep air fares competitive. Fares from our Detroit hub to PCB have been trending significantly higher. We purchased a west PCB pre-construction condo at Tidewater because of the convenient proximity to Pier Park and the new airport. The traffic around Destin is unbearable. Now what can we do about the outrageous spike in auto rental rates?

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14 Brenda September 22, 2009 at 9:42 am

I really hope that Southwest decides to come to Panama City, we come to Panama City frequetly to visit family and to enjoy the family. Southwest would be a very direct way to get there.

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15 Robert Pirrung September 22, 2009 at 10:22 am

From my years as a corporate officer I know that industry looks for several things in considering where to relocate: good place to live, ample workforce, ease of access, transportation options (deep water port, large international airport, railroad, 4 lane highways).
I don’t know if I’ve missed it, but I’ve not seen anyone point out that the best reason for the new airport is it provides that missing element that will attract industry-manufacturing and distribution. I can envision UPS and FEDEX being primary customers for the new Airbus 390 which I undersatand requires a 10,000ft runway. The only piece missing is Interstate highway access, but that is also on the drawing board.

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16 diane September 22, 2009 at 10:44 am

Anyone know why fares are so much higher at PC airport?

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17 Frequent Flyer September 22, 2009 at 2:12 pm

I support the new airport, and in time it will grow as the demand grows. Right now all the NW Florida airports are primarily served by small regional jets and prop planes. The reason why? Not enough demand for anything bigger.

Southwest does not serve small cities. Their model requires a large number of flights to make a city profitable. The demand is simply not there.

Also: Concentric circles? Look out west at all the holes in their route system. The holes are where there are no large population bases (like NW Florida).

Pensacola difficult? I have flown out of Pensacola many times and it is very convenient.

Tallahassee, Dothan, Fort Walton? I agree except I bet Fort Walton could get more slots for a new carrier. But they like Panama City have been losing service lately.

JMHO,
Frequent Flyer

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18 Bearabull September 22, 2009 at 4:53 pm

The thing I don’t like about southwest is they don’t fly out of O’Hare. I would rather see US Air. Of course, if push came to shove and I got a direct flight out of Midway with Southwest, I would do that rather than the connecting flights you now have to take. For a while American flew direct to VPS, but stopped when the economy turned bad.

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19 James September 22, 2009 at 9:12 pm

Great concept, however, it won’t work until Southwest begins flying out of Atlanta. That is where the potential is and Southwest will not try Atlanta. and if I am going to drive to Birmingham to get a flight to PCB, I might as well drive the rest of the way.

AirTran would be a much better alternative

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20 Michele September 22, 2009 at 10:12 pm

James, most of the flights into the current PCB airport (Bay County International) fly in from Atlanta now. The issue is getting some direct flights in from other areas of the country. The reason that only small planes fly into the existing airport (Bay County International) is because larger planes cannot due the runway being too short. Expansion was not possible at Bay County Int’l, thus the building of the new airport!

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21 Frequent Flyer September 23, 2009 at 8:25 am

Michele,

I have heard your statement many times about the size of the current airport limiting service. Unfortunately that is not correct.

I have been flying out of this area for many years. In the early 90s PCB was served by 737s (just like Southwest uses now) and 727s. The runway is plenty long enough.

Again, it is all about demand, not concrete.

FF

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22 Jason Koertge September 23, 2009 at 11:19 am

I’m sorry Frequent Flyer, you are incorrect. It is true that the current airport’s facilities did at one point service larger planes, but the FAA has since changed their regulations which limit such flights being accepted on our short runways. The current runways do not meet current safety regulations. Other carriers cannot come to our airport with larger planes because the FAA will not approve their operations.

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23 Frequent Flyer September 23, 2009 at 4:58 pm

Jason,

Could you cite your source that large aircraft are not allowed to use PC. I’m not saying you are not correct, it is just that there are so many rumors floating about the airport I would like to verify your info.

I have checked online with the FAA and can find no reference to any restrictions on the size of aircraft allowed to use the PC airport.

You cited the runway length. The PC runway is just as long as runways used at many major airports like Midway, Portland, and John Wayne.

Also, I know the small jets operating into PC are required to meet the same FAA rules as larger jets.

The airport also has guidance and lighting that meets all requirements for bad weather operations.

Thanks,
FF

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24 John September 23, 2009 at 9:01 am

Why we need Southwest:

1. Why are fares so much higher?
Because there is only one carrier – no competitition !
A dollar spent on air fare is one not spent here – if they come at all instead of going to a lower air fare area.

2. ASA – worst or second worst in three categories in the last survey I looked at this year. As a Platinum Delta Medallion Member, I have have learned to hate them due to crummy service, late flights, lost bags. It got better for a bit, but now is worse than ever. It’s like they got rid of any of the good folks they had and kept the jerks, including the german blonde woman who has yet to learn the basics of good cutomer service after about four years of my seeing her while flying out of here.
Now that Delta and Northwest have merged, you get ASA or no one.

3. Try building a good tourist image with that kind of welcome and departure.

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25 jellen September 23, 2009 at 10:48 am

I don’t care if it’s Southwest, US Airways, Air Tran or any other dependable carrier as long as we get non-stop flights and competition for Delta between the new airport and Detroit and Chicago. Delta has become unfriendly and expensive on the PFN routes so any competition has to be good. I can hardly wait!

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26 diane September 24, 2009 at 11:59 am

Several incorrect statements made on this thread need clarification.

If FAA has prohibited larger aircraft from using the current airport, it happened only recently and the public has not been informed. When claims were being made the current runway was unsafe, Virginia Lane, the FAA person overseeing the airport Environmental Impact Statement debunked this. Quote from the County Press, Nov 2003: “On safety, Smallwood said that the airport is safe; this has been verified by the Federal Aviation Administration and by safety expert Bob Francis. He quoted from a September 25 communication from Virginia Lane of the FAA, ‘The current facility is not unsafe.’

About 7 yeas ago, the FAA increased the “safety” area required at the end of runways, but applied the new rule only to new airports and airports undergoing a specific amount of redevelopment.

Consistent with this ruling, the amount of funds FAA has committed to the new airport is limited to the amount they would have provided if the runway was extended at the current site to include the new safety area standard, I believe about 6300 feet, but substantially less than the 8400 feet at the new site.

VP Cheney landed at the airport in AF 2 after the claims were made that the airport is unsafe.

It is incorrect that the current runway cannot be extended. Three effective and much cheaper alternatives were offered, vice spending $330 million and putting the airport in the bottom of a bowl of wetlands. A material called EMAS has been used to make up for shorter safety areas, it’s like a pad that slows down the plane. http://www.faa.gov/news/fact_sheets/news_story.cfm?newsId=6279

The runway could be extended into the bay with a lot less environmental damage than relocating to West Bay site. I don’t think anyone, including DEP, would object after seeing the recent mud flowing from the site to West Bay.

Or it could be extended in the other direction over 390, like Atlanta airport. You could entice a whole lot of homeowners to sell with $330 million to play with.

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27 diane September 24, 2009 at 12:30 pm

Jason,

Last night there were photos and commentary by dhodges showing stormwater on the airport. I cannot find them this morning. Can you tell me where the link is?

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28 jellen September 24, 2009 at 6:22 pm

Frequent Flyer:

Jason is absolutely correct about the FAA changing the regs to disallow the larger planes. It was big news in Panama City when it happened. It’s been a long time. I recall flying on the larger planes and being disappointed when they were banned. There had not been an accident. The FAA just decided to be more cautious.

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29 jellen September 24, 2009 at 6:25 pm

You could check the archives at the News Herald for the ban on larger planes at pfn. Perhaps it was due to the water or some environmental reason connected to the bay. I don’t recall the exact reason the ban was put in place. Certainly not everyone agreed with it though.

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30 Frequent Flyer September 25, 2009 at 9:02 am

Jellen,

Thanks for the input, I searched and found nothing. I just like to read these things for myself. Oh well, it does not really matter as we are about to have a new airport.

We all have our opinions on new service to the airport and only time tell.

FF

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31 diane September 25, 2009 at 9:48 am

I just spoke to a person in the PC tower (the Admin office referred me to the tower) — 763-8494. The tower operator said there has been no ban on “large” aircraft. He said there are restrictions on aircraft based on weight and landing gear, for example, a 747 with lots of wheels cannot land, but an Airbus 319, which he said is a very large plane, can land.

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32 diane September 25, 2009 at 8:30 pm

Jason,

I posted a comment yesterday morning correcting erroneous statments by posters. My post, #26, was tagged ‘in moderation” and has not yet been given public access. Is it too long?

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33 julie September 26, 2009 at 1:47 am

It sounds like you dont care who flys in or out of PFN, but anyone flying regularily knows that the competition makes fares go way down! The Delta connection out of PFN to ATL is an absolute joke!!!! Delta should really take a look at the people that handle the gates there…I had the unplesent experience of flying 2 weeks ago, there was a little weather, and flights were backed up. Delta was letting people on earlier flights, going out half full because the pilot wanted to beat the weather, left people and employees trying to get to work stranded. I feel very sorry for local people trying to fly anywhere with the total unprofessional airlines that you have right now…just because an airport is smaller, it does not mean the profesionalism has to lack..it was like a bunch of little kids trying to load those passengers very poor service!

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34 diane September 26, 2009 at 9:43 am

The theory of competition driving down price does not apply in the normal sense to airfare. There have been several articles in the News Herald explaining why competition is not the driving force behind high prices at PFN. Price is based on numbers of passengers — low numbers like at PFN equals high prices. If you have enough passengers to support two carriers, both with the same destination, and they can sustain a bottom line profit, then they might compete with specials, services, etc.

Other carriers have not left PFN because of the length of the runway, they left because with rising costs of operations in the industry, the number of passengers no longer made it profitable. If anyone has the time to check, the aiport authority should have calcuated in their business plan the factors that will turn the tide.

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35 Jellen September 26, 2009 at 3:00 pm

I didn’t read any comments suggesting that carriers left pfn due to the length of the runways. And if you don’t think competition feeds into ticket prices, you are not paying attention. Regular round trip ticket prices using pfn have increased over 50% since Delta and NWA merged. Potential passengers have avoided those prices by taking flights that use Pensacola or Jacksonville and then driving the rest of the way. Avoidance of pfn has been going on for years though — even before the Delta merger due to the inconvenience of non-direct flights. I’ve flown in and out of pfn since 1975 and can hardly wait for pfn to join the rest of the world. I don’t think the opening of the new airport will show immediate results but it’s a big step in the right direction. If people could finally get to Panama City Beach as quickly and as inexpensively as they can get to Tampa or Miami, for instance, we’ll see an increase in passengers. It is a case of “if you build it, they will come” but the hardscape is only part of it. Multiple carriers and good flights are very much the missing links.

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36 SWA-Expansion_Team October 1, 2009 at 1:53 am

“Pensacola Won’t work?” Jason, the distance from Pensacola to New Orleans Louis Armstrong Airport is at least 212 miles. If you can cover that distance “within about a 2.5 to 3 hour drive” as you say in your article, you are “flying” already bro! (That’s AVERAGING 85 mph). You don’t need an airline. In reality, it takes at least 3 hours and probably closer to 3 hr 45 min to travel from downtown Pensacola to MSY on any day of the week. Google Map: http://maps.google.com/maps?rlz=1C1CPMA_enUS336US339&sourceid=chrome&q=msy&um=1&ie=UTF-8&hq=&hnear=Louis+Armstrong+Airport&gl=us&ei=Yk_ESv3KD9LM8QbYyPFE&sa=X&oi=geocode_result&ct=title&resnum=1

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37 Renee November 4, 2009 at 12:06 pm

I have been in the travel industry for 25 years. I currently work for a national travel company in Pensacola. Choosing PFN over PNS,VPS,MOB or even GPT is bad bad bad!!! No one from our area ever go to MSY or BHM to fly Southwest. Air Tran in Pensacola offers the same rates as all the other carriers so I wouldn’t say they are the low fare airline in Pensacola. No one from this part of NW Florida would go all the way to PFN to save 50.00. SW is in for a rude awakening. I have to believe this decison is made with deals and money in the pockets of the “good ole boy” system!!! So what if they don’t charge for baggage! SW will only benefit from the people soley in the Panama City area and no where else.

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