By: PAT KELLY / News Herald Writer
WEST BAY â€” The airport celebrated its million-passenger milestone last month since opening its doors in May 2010, and airport officials are hoping a new federal grant will help plan for future expansion.
The $475,000 grant by the U.S. Department of Transportation will be used by the airport to hire a company to develop short- and long-term forecasts for future passenger traffic and the airportâ€™s ability to handle them.
The forecasts will be a crucial tool in strategic planning for the design, timing and financing of capital improvement projects, said John Wheat, executive director of the Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport.
â€œThis will be the first master plan developed for the airport,â€ he said, noting the study will keep the airport from falling â€œbehind the eight ballâ€ like it did when officials scrambled to double the size of the initial parking lot following the original deluge of passengers.
â€œWill you need 10 gates in the future, and how is that going to be accomplished?â€ Wheat used as an example. â€œDo you do one gate at a time, or four gates, and how is it going to be financed?â€
Original plans for airport growth had been based on traffic at the old airfield in Panama City before Southwest Airlines began service at the airport near West Bay.
Whichever company is chosen to develop the master plan, different levels of passenger demand, from slow to robust, will be forecast over five-, 10- and 20-year periods.
The RFQ (Request For Qualifications) went out Thursday.
An inventory of current airport capacity will be used as a baseline, and the study will forecast future needs for the terminal, parking, runway and taxiways, among many other components, such as the baggage claim area and airline ticket counters, Wheat said.
The airlines also will be involved in the planning.
â€œThe biggest impact is on the airlines because they rent most of our space,â€ Wheat said. â€œThey will contribute to this; we all will contribute.â€
The study, estimated to cost about $500,000, will go a long way in determining future landing fees for the airlines and other charges, such as terminal tenant rates and ground transportation fees, Wheat said.
Since the airport officially opened, a new $2 million, 10-acre parking lot is adding 1,000 spaces; fixed-base operator Sheltair has opened its terminal building, hangar complex and office facility; and CAP (Covered Airport Parking), a nearby private parking lot, is flourishing.
The airport also is continuing to plan for a 5,000-foot crosswind runway to augment its current 10,000-foot runway.