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Bay County airport stands strong and develops in the face of COVID-19

Nathan Cobb
The News Herald

PANAMA CITY BEACH — With the year's end in sight, the director of Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport (ECP) said the "entire community should be proud" of its efforts to withstand the COVID-19 pandemic. 

With many airports throughout the country still crippled by the coronavirus, and some experiencing dips in passengers of 50-60%, ECP continues to stand strong, said Parker McClellan, the airport's executive director.

The airport's durability was among topics he discussed during an Airport Authority meeting on Wednesday.

To help the Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport continue to withstand the COVID-19 pandemic, face masks are still required throughout the terminal.

"I think it's not as much the airport as it is the region and we are a component of the region," McClellan said.  "All the airports across the Panhandle have done relatively well during this time and that's as a result of the demand to come to our community."

While ECP has done better than most, it's still not immune to the rippling effects of the virus. According to information from the meeting, it serviced more than 87,500 passengers in October, about 18% less than it saw during the same month in 2019. Year to date, there have been almost 690,000 passengers, a dip of about 37% from last year. 

More:Bay airport stands strong despite possible widespread airline worker layoffs

More:Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport works to expand based on demand

To prevent passengers from transmitting COVID-19, the airport still requires face masks throughout its terminal, although that has presented some challenges, McClellan added.

"It's a difficult thing to enforce because of the different opinions people have," he said. 

McClellan also discussed ongoing construction projects, including the "substantially complete" terminal expansion, which grew the facility by about 7,000 square feet and added two gates with loading bridges.

Crews load luggage onto an airplane at the Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport.

"It's exciting to hear that even through COVID, our airport has maintained passenger traffic and has continued to fare fairly well during the struggles that we've had this year," said Becca Hardin, president of the Bay County Economic Development Alliance. 

During the meeting, which was virtually broadcast on Zoom, Hardin mentioned pending plans to construct a double-bay, narrow-body hangar adjacent to the runway at the airport. 

Passengers await their flights  at Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport.

Dubbed Project Gator, the development is slated to have a capital investment of about $25 million and create almost 100 jobs, she added. 

More:Bay Economic Development Alliance gains new investor, works to create 1,300 new jobs

While some details are still being finalized, Hardin said she hoped for construction to start sometime after the new year. Her group is also working to seal a $4.8 million grant from Triumph Gulf Coast to help fund the project. 

"This (will be) is a major win for everyone," Hardin said of Project Gator. "This will be the first (maintenance repair and overhaul ) operation that will be under construction at the airport and this is part of our long-term strategy to create an aviation center of excellence. This will be the first leg of that stool."