New airport set to open in Florida Panhandle

Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport is set to open in Panama City, Fla., in May, and travelers can already book flights to the new facility.

The big coup for the new airport is a deal with Southwest Airlines, which did not previously fly any routes to the Florida Panhandle. Southwest will offer nonstop flights between Panama City and Nashville, Orlando, Houston and Baltimore beginning May 23.

Delta, which already serves Panama City’s existing airport from Atlanta and Memphis, will move to the new and improved one.

But is there a need for a new airport with a 10,000-foot runway in a town of 37,000?

That’s the question the New York Times asked, and the newspaper got all kinds of answers.

The airport’s main backer, the St. Joe Company, is a major real estate developer in Florida that owns hundreds of thousands of acres of undeveloped land in — guess where? — the area that will be served by the new airport. Company officials say the airport is one step in a plan to build the area into a major international destination.

Environmentalists say the building of the new airport on wetlands was damaging to the environment. And a former Delta executive says building the new airport was unnecessary, when the old airport could have been enlarged.

The biggest challenge to the new airport in Panama City right now is the economy. Will the airport survive until Florida travel rebounds?