Local pilot's arrival lands Southwest Airlines at Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport
EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE — Thursday was a historic day for Okaloosa County and Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport as it was announced that a partnership had been forged with Southwest Airlines that should prove beneficial to visitors and travelers alike.
It was an equally monumental day for veteran Southwest pilot Casey Murray, who was granted the honor of landing the first plane bearing the Southwest logo at his hometown airport.
"I've lived here for 26 years. I'm a product of Fort Walton Beach," Murray said. "I wanted to be the one to say it was my wheels that touched down here first."
The announcement:VPS welcomes Southwest Airlines, adding direct flights to Nashville, Chicago and more
More new routes:Allegiant continues Destin-Fort Walton Beach expansion with five new routes
Murray was accompanied by his wife and son on a morning flight from Nashville, Southwest's actual inaugural trip into Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport.
He said his flight had gone well, then smiled and shared a secret as he waited with dignitaries and members of the news media for the noontime arrival of the ceremonial inaugural flight, which came in from Dallas amid much fanfare and a water cannon salute.
"I had to do a go-around coming in," he said. "So actually, I got to do the first two approaches."
Murray said he had to pass on his first landing effort to allow a military plane to take off from the runway Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport shares with Eglin Air Force Base.
Reeling in Southwest was something of a coup for Okaloosa County Airports Director Tracy Stage and in remarks made before the arrival of the flight from Dallas he thanked Southwest and his own staff for working the long hours required to get at least a year's worth of preparation done in just a matter of months.
"It has been a long road," he said. "The addition of Southwest Airlines to our family is a monumental win for our communities, businesses and the industry."
"Today's really a culmination of 15 years of effort," Stage would say after the celebration. "Southwest is ranked No. 1 in the world and we got them."
Southwest joins Allegiant, American Airlines, Delta and United as tenants at the Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport, which is actually located in Valparaiso and therefore goes by the call sign of VPS.
The airline now claims a presence at the three largest Florida airports west of Tallahassee, Pensacola International Airport, Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport in Panama City and Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport.
Murray acknowledged the "weird dynamic for Southwest, having bases in three cities within 90 miles of each other," but Stage said the local markets, each of which support military missions and a booming tourism industry, can fulfill the airline's needs.
"The demand is there," he said. "That's all I can tell you, the demand is there."
Bill Tierney, the vice president for marketing for Southwest Airlines, told those gathered awaiting the arrival of Florida 1 from Dallas that the airline had seen the potential for success in the Destin-Fort Walton Beach market early on, and had boosted the number of destination cities for the local airport from four to nine "before we ever started to fly."
Southwest's arrival comes as work continues at the Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport to expand and create a "whole new Allegiant terminal" with four new aircraft bays, according to Okaloosa County Commissioner Mel Ponder.
With the completion of Concourse C, "there should be room" to accommodate all of the airport's tenants, County Administrator John Hofstad said.
Previous coverage:Allegiant to extend more than two dozen seasonal routes
"We are busting at the seams," Hofstad said.
Ponder called the arrival of Southwest Airlines "a game changer," and County Commission Chairman Carolyn Ketchel said Southwest's arrival marked "a great day for our county."
Southwest will immediately begin offering daily flights to Nashville, Tennessee, Baltimore, Maryland, and Dallas, Texas. On June 6, the airlines plans to add two weekend flights to Dallas and a daily non-stop flight to Chicago.
Also beginning June 6, weekend flights will be offered to Austin and Houston in Texas, Kansas City and St. Louis in Missouri, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin.