VPS welcomes Southwest Airlines, adding direct flights to Nashville, Chicago and more

Kevin Robinson
Northwest Florida Daily News

EGLIN ARB — Okaloosa County officials announced Thursday that Southwest Airlines is coming to Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport.

New routes will begin operating May 6 with one-way fares to Nashville three times a day as low as $69, to Dallas once daily with fares as low as $69 and to Baltimore once daily with fares as low as $79. Service to Chicago will begin June 6 with fares as low as $79.

Southwest Airlines Senior Director for Network Planning Steven Swan announces the airline's arrival at the Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport along with Airports Director Tracy Stage and County Commissioner Carolyn Ketchel.

Airports Director Tracy Stage said he was incredibly happy and proud to welcome Southwest, and he thanked local leadership and the airport's staff for their hard work in making the partnership happen.

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"It's a monumental announcement," Stage said. "Southwest Airlines has visited this airport numerous times over the decades, really, and today's the day (they are here to stay) ... . We're incredibly excited about today's announcement and we welcome Southwest to the family."

The announcement was made Thursday morning in the airport's main terminal. A host of local elected leaders were on hand to celebrate the news, as was Steven Swan, Southwest's senior director for network and schedule planning.

Stage and County Commission Chairwoman Carolyn Ketchel praised everyone involved in the new agreement and touted the many achievements and recognitions the airport has accrued in recent months.

The airport, commonly known as VPS, was named the fastest growing in the U.S. by Bloomberg. In December the county announced the airport system is debt free as of this fiscal year, and Ketchel noted that whereas many airports were averaging about 37% of their pre-pandemic passenger traffic, VPS already has bounced back to 73%.

She attributed the success to Stage's leadership and the county's focused approach to managing the airport's growth through such steps as creating a guiding aviation board and partnering with the Tourist Development Council to secure $3 million for airline recruitment.

Okaloosa County officials and Southwest Airlines representatives celebrate the airline's arrival at Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport.

"Reflecting back six years ago, the Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport offered only four direct flights," Ketchel said. "Just this month on Feb. 9, we shared an announcement that expanded overall direct service to 47 cities provided by Allegiant Air, American Airlines, Delta Airlines and United Airlines. Today, we safely gather and will celebrate yet another significant airport achievement that will have a profound and positive effect on our communities and for our citizens." 

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Ketchel noted that while air travel remains suppressed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, she sees clear skies ahead.

"I think as soon as we get everybody vaccinated and we tamp this virus down, we're gonna see things reopening and people will return to normal business," she said. "Meanwhile, all of these flights bring tourists here to our area who are excited to come breathe fresh air, sit on our beautiful white beaches, look at our beautiful emerald green water in the Gulf and just enjoy and kick back with their families. 

"No longer are we undiscovered. We are now discovered, and I think once they get the sand in their shoes they won't want to leave."