In the last few years, new airlines serving Southwest Florida have meant hundreds of new direct flights and cheaper fares – as cheap as a Greyhound bus fare in the 1980s.
For Boca Grande residents like Anne Honey, one can now take a direct flight – at a discount and in a new plane – from Virginia to one of the three airports that serve our region.
“It’s a breeze,” said Honey, who is now using the startup discount airline Breeze Airways to take trips back and forth. The airline, while new, comes with a trust factor, as it was founded by David Neeleman, founder of JetBlue. Breeze flies the new Airbus A220-300, a Canadian jet that has five-across seating and USB plugs, even in coach. It also has a two-by- two first class section, with reclining French Safran Z600 seats.
Pre-Breeze, Honey had been flying Allegiant Air or one of the legacy carriers.
Long gone are the days of having to make a change in Atlanta or Charlotte. And long, long gone are the days of discounters ValuJet and Air Florida. In that era, déclassé discount carriers scared up old DC-9s from the likes of Turkish Airlines and SAS, and began bucket-shop service between only the big cities and airports like Orlando, hours away. This was of little help to Boca Grande residents.
“The appeal of direct flights and new planes is attractive to all passengers, including the affluent,” said Dr. Rachel Fu, chair and professor of the Department of Tourism, Hospitality, and Event Management at the University of Florida. “The convenience of skipping connections and the appeal of flying on a new aircraft may outweigh the perks offered by traditional airlines.”
These days, for instance, Allegiant flies the A320, having disposed of its vintage DC-9s and MD-80s, and Avelo, a brand new carrier serving destinations like New Haven, Conn., flies the 737-800.
In her study of the Florida tourism market as director of the Eric Friedheim Tourism Institute, Dr. Fu says that the new airlines are not only making it easier for people to take short breaks or weekend trips, but the increased accessibility to Florida’s regional areas may change travel patterns and draw tourists to new destinations within the state.
While the early days of flying were more glamorous, the flights were much more expensive and far less frequent. It was February 15, 1965 when the first National Airlines jet service came to Sarasota. National Airlines President L.B. ‘Bud’ Maytag is seen with Miss Sarasota and Miss Manatee County, as well as several men dressed as Spanish conquistadors. Florida Memory Project photo.
Unlike earlier decades, when discounters put the likes of Pan Am, Eastern and Braniff out of business, the travel pie seems to be expanding the market, and there is no zero-sum risk of shutting down more expensive carriers like American, Delta and United.
“The introduction of new carriers and routes could apply some pressure on the big three, but they have substantial resources, including extensive flight networks and loyal customer bases,” said Fu. “The aviation market is vast and can sustain a level of competition.”
The economic model for airlines followed the model of Southwest Airlines and JetBlue, opening more direct flights to big markets from our local airports.
But these flights are more difficult to find, as the schedules are not always daily, and many of the flights are not in global reservations systems like Orbitz and Kayak. In addition, these airlines serve Southwest Florida seasonally, beginning in different months.
Trend Should Continue
The region’s airports have benefitted from the trend.
“We’ve increased our airlines from six to 11, and our direct destinations from 12 to 54,” said Mark Stuckey, Sarasota Bradenton International Airport’s chief of staff and executive vice president. The airport, which has all of its flights in one now bustling 14-gate corridor, is in the process of adding more gates.
Prior to 2018, Sarasota had no discount carriers, and just over a million passengers a year. Allegiant arrived, opening it up to discounters. Southwest arrived in February of 2021. The traffic has more than quadrupled, and is now 4.5 million passengers yearly.
“Southwest came in, and of course they have quickly become our number one carrier,” said Stuckey.
The good fortune of lower fares and more direct flights at our local airports is not just about population and travel trends. Airlines use a figure called Cost Per Enplaned Passenger, nicknamed CPE, to decide the cost of serving a city. And Southwest Florida’s airports have a very low cost, which is attractive to airlines. It allows for economies of scale, which will continue to benefit the region.
Sarasota, for instance, is one of the rare debt-free airports in the U.S., and that lower cost plays out in fees for airlines. It costs about $9.54 per passenger for an airline in Tampa, Stuckey says, and about $5.07 in Sarasota. As the passengers soared, the cost per passenger went down even more. This also improved the viability of concourse offerings.
“It’s kind of like the snowball method,” said Stuckey. “It’s kind of like paying off your debt.”
Punta Gorda Airport
Allegiant spurred the growth in Punta Gorda, taking the airport from about 200,000 passengers in 2010 to 1.8 million in 2022. The airport now serves over 50 airports directly from Punta Gorda.
Like Sarasota, Punta Gorda has a strong financial position; at the end of 2022 it had over $22 million in cash on hand and required no subsidies from Charlotte County.
The Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers has also benefitted from the new carriers, and is served by Avelo, Breeze, Frontier, Spirit and Sun Country. Breeze, for instance, just announced that they will commence nonstop service to Akron-Canton, New Orleans, Norfolk, Richmond and Syracuse. Breeze has also announced new flights from Fort Myers to Pittsburgh four times weekly, Louisville twice weekly, Columbus three times weekly and Raleigh-Durham twice weekly.
The startup Avelo is still a small player in Fort Myers, offering service to Raleigh, Philadelphia and New Haven. They also serve Philadelphia and New Haven from Sarasota.
As these new airlines try these first-ever direct routes, expect that there will now be direct flights from just about every major mid-sized city to Southwest Florida.
“New airline startups like Breeze and Avelo are targeting underserved markets and smaller airports, creating new direct routes that did not exist before,” said Fu. “As they continue to grow and expand, they may add more such routes.”