VPS sets new record for total passengers. Where are they flying from? What's the tourism impact?

Tony Judnich
Northwest Florida Daily News

EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE – Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport (VPS) has not merely rebounded from last year’s onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, but has already set a new record for the total number of passengers flying to and from the airport in one calendar year.

According to the latest data available for this year, the Okaloosa County-owned airport saw a total of 1.76 million passengers through October, or nearly double the total for all of 2020, when the pandemic had a stronger grip on much of the world.

People pack the beach on Okaloosa Island in 2018. Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport has set a record the for the number of passengers this year.

The 1.76 million figure alone broke the airport’s previous record for all of 2019, when it recorded a total of 1.67 million passengers. The current total, of course, still has room to grow.

“I expect we’ll close out 2021 with over 1.9 million passengers,” said county Airports Director Tracy Stage, who in addition to leading VPS directs the county-owned Bob Sikes Airport in Crestview and Destin Executive Airport.

A ground crew member guides a Delta jet to the terminal at the Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport. As of October, the airport had seen 1.76 million passengers this year, breaking the previous record of 1.67 million for all of 2019.

Here’s another way of looking at the tremendous growth in recent years at VPS: Its total number of passengers in 2015 amounted to just more than 700,000. The 1.9 million anticipated for all of 2021 is nearly triple the final tally from six years ago.

Related:Airport growth continues to soar

This year’s record number of passengers has helped fuel a larger Airport Enterprise Fund: It totals $49 million, which is 17.2% more than the previous year’s budget.

Incoming passengers retrieve their luggage at the Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport. As of October, the airport had seen 1.76 million passengers this year, breaking the previous record of 1.67 million for all of 2019.

Despite the pandemic, the county has been able to continue to invest in VPS by providing more passenger parking spots, better baggage handling equipment and other projects, Stage said.

Allegiant Air, American Airlines, Delta, Southwest and United are the airlines that serve VPS.

While this year’s record number of passengers benefits those airlines and the airport and local economy, a recent tourism-marketing decision by the County Commission seems to reflect the view of some elected officials to focus more on the needs of residents.

Why the record number of passengers?

Stage said there are a number of reasons for the record number of passengers at VPS.

For example, “Business travel domestically and internationally was significantly impacted because of COVID,” he said.

Not long after the pandemic began, most domestic carriers turned their attention to destinations that offer mountain getaways and beach escapes, the latter of which includes the Destin-Fort Walton Beach market, Stage said.

People load their bags into vehicles at the curb of the Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport. Despite a record number of passengers at the airport this year, the Okaloosa County Commission last month rejected a request from Tourist Development Department Director Jennifer Adams for an extra $1.3 million to market the Emerald Coast to visitors.

“The carriers who adjusted their models captured the demand: More travelers wanted to enjoy the open air and open spaces,” he said.

He noted that larger airplanes with more seats are another reason for the huge uptick in flyers in and out of VPS this year compared to 2020.

“Now all of our carriers are flying much larger aircraft: The passenger load factor across the board averages in the high 80s,” said Stage, who began serving as the airports director in early 2016 after having worked for the Airports Department for almost a decade.

More:Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport honors Eglin airman with holiday trip back home

The record growth at VPS also is attributed to the addition of Southwest, which began serving the airport in May. It offers direct flights to Chicago and Nashville, which are two of the major markets sought out by the county's Tourist Development Department.

Stage also highlighted the importance of Allegiant Air, which began serving VPS in 2016.

“Allegiant has made a major commitment to our destination and has had a significant impact on the airport,” he said. “Bringing in Allegiant and Southwest has meant more competition and lower fares across the board.”

Through October of this year, American Airlines had the most passengers flying into and out of VPS, with 568,037. Allegiant was close behind, followed by Delta, Southwest and United.

Travelers check in at the Allegiant Air ticket counter at the Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport. Allegiant and Southwest airlines have helped the airport by increasing competition and lowering fares, Okaloosa County Airports Director Tracy Stage says.

Stage noted that American has a larger flight schedule than Allegiant, whose schedule is less than daily.

The airport’s new Concourse C, which is being paid for upfront by Allegiant, could officially open April 1 on the terminal’s west side. It will have five boarding gates hold rooms where passengers board the planes and three TSA checkpoints, giving the airport a total of seven checkpoints.

Where are they flying from? 

Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport does not track where inbound passengers fly in from, and the Tourist Development Department does not have a breakdown on the number of visitors who drive or fly to Okaloosa County.

However, market research shows that most visitors come from Atlanta, and that the county primarily remains a “drive market,” TDD director Jennifer Adams said.

Besides Atlanta, the TDD’s top markets are Dallas, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Nashville, Chicago, Washington, D.C., St. Louis, Minneapolis and Detroit.

From that batch of cities, visitors from Nashville, Chicago and Washington, D.C. spend the most money while in the area, according to market research.

In recent years, one of the goals of the TDD and county's Tourist Development Council has been to attract more higher-spending visitors rather than simply more tourists. 

With that aim in mind, Adams asked the County Commission Nov. 2 to increase the TDD’s $7.4 million paid media budget by $1.3 million. The $1.3 million in tourist development or “bed tax” money would be used to promote the Emerald Coast, mostly via TV broadcast and digital/streaming ads, in the Chicago area.

While Okaloosa County sees more visitors from Atlanta than Chicago, the ones from Chicago typically stay longer and spend more when they’re here, according to research cited by Adams.

She had hoped the $1.3 million worth of potential marketing in the Windy City would be in place from January through May 2022, building awareness of the Emerald Coast and influencing travel in the spring, summer and fall.

The commission, however, rejected the request.

Fiscal 2022 began Oct. 1. For fiscal 2021, the TDD received a record-high of more than $33 million in bed tax money, according to county information.

Besides public safety services that address impacts related to increased tourism, major bed tax-funded expenses in recent years have included artificial reef projects and the purchase of properties to expand public beach access in Destin.

More:It's back to the future in Destin as public beach expansion project begins

'Saturated with tourists'

At the Nov. 2 meeting, Commissioner Nathan Boyles said the $1.3 million requested to highlight the area to Chicagoans would be better invested in enhancing “the product.”

He then highlighted projects, such as the recent land buys that will expand public beach access in Destin and the planned paved path across much of Okaloosa Island for bicyclists and pedestrians, that will benefit visitors and residents alike.

“I’m a firm believer that a good product will market itself,” Boyles said.

But Commissioner Mel Ponder, who represents the commission on the TDC, said the “over-abundance of competition” from other destinations is a challenge that Okaloosa County must meet.

Commission Chairman Carolyn Ketchel expressed a different view.

“Some would say we’re saturated with tourists and that we need to get our infrastructure and roads upgraded before we try to attract more,” Ketchel said. “I’m sure every commissioner up here has heard from their constituents about “how much tourism is enough,” and “how many heads in beds do we need?” We’re at a saturation point where it’s not even pleasant to live here in the summer. You can’t move (on some local roads). I’m trying to strike a balance.”

Adams reiterated that she was “seeking to replace the lower-spending visitors with the higher-spending, year-round (visitors) who both drive and fly here.”

After much further discussion, the commission voted 5-0 against the new paid media request.

Last Monday, Adams told the Northwest Florida Daily News that last year’s record-high bed tax amount will be difficult to sustain.

“I’m trying to bring higher-spending visitors here to help support the local economy,” she said. “I can get them here.”

But maybe not without the commission’s support.