'This is just the start': Allegiant Airlines added to VPS

SAVANNAH VASQUEZ 315-4412 | @destinlogsav
Allegiant expects to bring more than 12,000 additional visitors to the area each year.

The Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport announced Tuesday the long-awaited addition of a new airline. After nine years of competitive marketing, the airport announced that Allegiant Airlines will join the regional airport May 20, with direct flights to and from Cincinnati, Ohio and will expand June 2, to offer flights to and from St. Louis, Missouri. The flights start as low as $39 and are scheduled to run seasonally through August during this inaugural year.

According to the airline, these new flights are set to bring more than 12,000 additional visitors to the Destin/Fort Walton Beach area each year and generate an estimated $3.5 million in visitor spending, but Interim Airport Manager Tracy Stage believes those numbers are way too modest.

“Allegiant came out conservatively estimating $3.5 million for the first year based off of a schedule to the first week of September,” said Stage. “I am estimating much higher numbers based on an extended season, and again starting out in March of next year. You are talking millions and millions of economic impact. These people are going to be coming from metropolitan cities to Destin and Fort Walton Beach…this is a huge win for our community.”

Stage added that if the demand for flights continues through the late summer, the airline may extend service to as late as October 2016; something he believes will be inevitable.

“Reports from Allegiant, that have posted since announcing, are record bookings within 24 hours,” said Stage. “These are families that are going to be coming here from St. Louis and Cincinnati to Destin to vacation at the beach; and they are going to be here for extended stays. They are getting here quickly and the cost is so cheap they could possibly come more than once a year.”

Destin Area Chamber of Commerce President Shane Moody agreed that Allegiant Airline’s addition to the airport is good news for Destin.

“First of all, I think St. Louis and Cincinnati are very good markets for us as drive-to markets,” he said. “People already in those areas drive here, but it’s easier to jump on a flight and get away for four-day weekends than it is to drive 14 hours, so it will really make a positive impact. I think them (Allegiant) offering the discounts to those areas will allow people to get here quickly, it will certainly be a positive for the community.”

However, Moody noted that as this is the first new airline in the area for quite awhile, it may take some time to see a monetary impact.

“We haven’t had added airlines in a long time but typically you certainly see a good positive impact,” he said. “They (Allegiant) have a smart business model: Starting out with two metropolitan areas- two markets we already see a lot of visitors from-and branching out afterwards. But it may take a couple cycles for us to really feel the impact from what they are doing.”

In recent years, the Destin/Fort Walton Beach Airport struggled with new airlines as former company, Vision Airlines, added in December 2010, left the area abruptly after just one year of service. At the time, Vision owed the county more than $100,000 for unpaid passenger facility charges which took two years of litigation to recover.

However, with Allegiant, Stage is confidant as he said although the process was long in coming, he believes the airport attracted the best airline for the area.

“A lot of research and metrics went into identifying the origin cities in the Midwest that frequent our area for vacation,” he said. “It took us nine years, but they selected our airport over all the other airports in the region.”

Besides tourist revenue, another perk for Destin locals will be cheap flights to Midwest cities as well as the advantage of Allegiant’s St. Louis and Cincinnati hubs which offer connections to nationwide and worldwide destinations.

“This is just the start,” said Stage, “We’re expecting to announce additional cities next year.”