Southern Airways Express to offer service at Destin Airport

Matt Algarin
The airline will use turboprop Cessna Caravans with luxury executive-style seating to carry travelers to various locations along the Gulf Coast.

When Southern Airways Express begins flights to Destin, City Councilman Larry Williges says he will welcome them with open, but cautious, arms.

"I don't know if they are going to be able to accomplish what they are hoping to do," he said. "We've had a few others try something like this before. I'm not sure it's going to last, but I wish them the best."

The Memphis-based company recently announced that it would be offering service to Destin, Panama City and other locations along the Gulf Coast, such as New Orleans, Birmingham and Gulf Shores.

Instead of using major hub airports, such as Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson, Southern Airways Express will fly between secondary, executive airports, such as the Destin Airport.

All flights will be taken upon turboprop Cessnas with leather seats and iPads for in-flight business and entertainment. One-way flights will range between $129 and $249.

City Councilman Tuffy Dixon said he was "all-in" for Southern Airways Express to begin flights to Destin.

"I think it's great," he said, adding that it would increase the amount of visitors coming directly to the city.

And while he welcomed the new carrier, Dixon did say that it's important for county officials "to stay on top of" of the new company, as he agreed that a lesson was learned from the Vision Airlines situation earlier this year. Vision Airlines began offering flights out of Northwest Florida Regional Airport in December 2010 and local business leaders and county officials praised the airline and called Northwest Florida the airline's "hub." Gov. Rick Scott came to Destin to take part in the official announcement, and quite a bit of money was pledged to the airline for marketing efforts.

In 2011, BP and Okaloosa County came to a $1.5 million settlement agreement to cover loses over a five month period due to the oil spill. At the time, the late Mark Bellinger, who was the executive director of the Okaloosa County Tourist Development Council, said that “a good percentage” of the money would be used to help Vision Airlines promote its flights to the area.

As time went on, Vision began to reduce the number of flights it offered to cities throughout the Southeast, and they ultimately stopped offering flights to Northwest Florida all together. Once flights were cancelled, the airline failed to pay Okaloosa County more than $100,000 in fees. Ultimately the county sued the airline and they repaid the fees.

Prior to confirming the flights to Destin, Chief Operating Officer Keith Sisson suggested that they wouldn’t make the same mistakes as past airlines.

"If we were to come to Destin, we would be doing it in a fashion that hasn't been seen before," he said at the time.

Unlike a traditional operator, Southern Airways Express plans to make flying "fun again." Convenience and no-hassle flying is a point of emphasis for the company, as they don't charge baggage fees, and they allow each passenger one carry-on bag and a checked bag up to 50 pounds.

Passengers will not wait in long lines or be shuttled through TSA checkpoints, and they only have to check in at the airport 15 minutes before their flight.

The airline has been offering charter flights, but due to a delay in paperwork and a "final approval" through the Department of Transportation, ticket sales to the general public have been put on hold. They had initially planned to be offering flights by May 29.

Sisson told The Log Tuesday that the airline must also secure a sub-lease agreement with the Okaloosa County Board of County Commissioners before it can begin service to the Destin Airport. The item is on the commissioner's June 4 agenda.

"We're very excited to get going," Sisson said.