Passenger airline confirms plans to serve Destin Airport

Dusty Ricketts | Northwest Florida Daily News

A new Memphis-based airline has announced plans to offer direct flights between Destin Airport and cities around the Southeast.

Southern Airways Express has confirmed it plans to launch service to Destin, Panama City and other destinations in the region at the end of the month. Instead of large passenger jets, Southern Airways Express will operate three nine-seat turboprop Cessna Caravans with luxury executive-style seating.

The start-up airline hopes to bring a sense of fun and luxury back to the aviation business.

 “This is very much like what executives travel in, and it’s very much like what people who are used to traveling in nice corporate aircraft travel in,” said Keith Sisson, chief operating officer for Southern Airways Express. “We’re just taking that experience and transferring it to the general public, and we’re doing so at very affordable rates.

“We’re trying to make flying fun again,” Sisson added. “Flying hasn’t been fun in quite awhile. This is a fun flight. These planes, they’re like sight-seeing tours that have a destination. There’s not a TSA security hassle. You don’t have to wait two hours at the airport. We’re telling people to show up 15 minutes before the flight takes off, check in at the airport and we’ll get you to where you want to go and we’ll make it fun.”

Southern Airways Express announced its summer routes Monday in Memphis. By late June, Sisson said he anticipates offering up to 106 flights a week.

The airline will offer flights between Destin Airport and Memphis, Oxford, Miss., Birmingham and New Orleans. The airline also will serve Panama City.

“They’re very important locations,” Sisson said. “You can’t turn a corner in the mid-south area of Memphis and not see somebody who either has a condo or has access to a condo down in that area.

“There’s such a need for people in Memphis to have easy access to the Florida Gulf Coast,” he added.

The airline is designed to be year-round, but Sisson said it may cut back on flights in the non-peak season. During the fall, he said it plans to offer college football packages to allow people to fly to Oxford or maybe even Tallahassee for games.

A one-way ticket will range $129 to $249.

Sisson said the airline does not charge baggage fees, and allows each passenger one carry-on bag and a checked bag up to 50 pounds. Each passenger also will get an iPad preloaded with movies, television shows, concerts and albums for free entertainment during the flights.

The airline hopes to begin flights May 29, but that date might be delayed at the Destin Airport. Before Southern Airlines Express can start service, it must submit a sublease agreement with Miracle Strip Aviation, one of the fixed-base operators at the airport.

“I can confirm that Southern Airways Express has been in touch with us about starting service to there, but we haven’t received a sublease agreement that would have to receive board approval,” said Mike Stenson, deputy airports director for Okaloosa County.

“I had hoped to get it last week,” Stenson added.

Stenson said it was his understanding the airline would not be able to start flying until the County Commission approved the sublease. The next commission meeting is scheduled for May 21, but the deadline for county departments to submit agenda items for the meeting is Wednesday.

However, Stenson said the service — which would be Destin Airport’s first scheduled carrier — would be good for the airport.

“It increases fuel sales into the airport,” Stenson said. “It gives people a new way to get down here, a few more heads in beds per day. It’s good for the community and it’s not something that would be overwhelming as far as additional flights.”

Parker McClellan, executive director of Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport in Panama City Beach, said Southern Airways Express will operate completely through Sheltair, the airport’s fixed-based operator. Security screenings will be done through Sheltair.

Dan Rowe, director of the Bay County Tourist Development Council, said although Southern Airways Express won’t replace major carriers such as Southwest and Delta, it will provide more options.

“It’s always good when we have additional air carriers coming into the marketplace to provide access for visitors to get to Panama City Beach,” Rowe said. “Their concentration, flying the small community aircraft, you can skip having to go through the terminal, ticketing and having to be at the airport well over an hour in advance. It’s a type of service I think a lot of people will find attractive.”

Panama City News Herald Staff Writer Valerie Garman contributed to this report.