Sheltair’s newly constructed FBO at Northwest Florida Beaches Airport (ECP) in Panama City is the gateway to the Emerald Coast, a 100-mile stretch of powdery white-sand beaches on the Sunshine State’s panhandle that has long been a resort destination for general aviation passengers and pilots.
The company’s 5,200-sq-ft facility opened at ECP last summer after operating from a temporary building there since July 2010, two months after the green-build airport opened. Sheltair moved its operation from Panama City Airport, where it ran an FBO it acquired in 2006 from Sowell Aviation. Panama City Airport itself was closed in October 2010, five months after it was replaced by ECP. During the five-month transition period, Sheltair was effectively running two FBOs in the Panama City area–one at the now-closed airport and another at ECP.
The old airfield was landlocked and was unable to expand its runways to meet stricter safety zones, let alone stretch them to allow Boeing 737s to land there. This led to the development and construction of ECP as a green-field replacement, but built far enough away from “non-compatible” populated areas so that airport expansion or aircraft noise would not be a concern.
But this has also created a problem for both the airport and Sheltair ECP: they are located almost in the middle of nowhere, at least for now. In fact, several GA pilots have complained on airport information websites such as AirNav that ECP is simply too far away from anything and everything. The closest beach is a 30-minute drive, and with no traffic it’s a 30-minute ride to downtown Panama City. The old airport site had been in the heart of the downtown area and just minutes from beaches. Still, ECP is attracting GA traffic that previously flew into Destin Airport, and traffic is up 60 to 70 percent over the old airport.
Sheltair ECP general manager Michael Lerma acknowledged that the airport’s location is a challenge, adding that the lack of even a nearby restaurant (sans those few inside the airline passenger terminal) has forced him to take packed lunches to work every day. It has also created difficulties with last-minute catering requests, he said, since the FBO requires at least four hours’ notice for catering due to its distance from the city.
However, Lerma said, this will change as the land around the airport is developed. This is already starting to happen, albeit at a slower pace than originally expected due to the sluggish economy. Northwest Florida Beaches Airport deputy executive director Parker McClellan Jr. told AIN that ITT is building a 105,000-sq-ft office for some 150 employees on land adjacent to the airport. That project is slated to be completed this summer and will likely spawn construction of restaurants and hotels in the area, he added.
Once the economy is on more stable footing and aircraft traffic increases at ECP, the airport itself will also expand. There are plans to build a crosswind runway eventually, as well as a parallel runway to the existing 10,000-foot Runway 16-34.
Sheltair’s terminal facility, which was designed and built to “green” Leed certification standards, includes passenger and crew lounges, lobby, conference room, flight planning/weather room and a cafeteria/vending area. Amenities at the FBO include concierge service; complimentary aircraft interior cleaning; catering; crew cars; rental vehicles; complimentary refreshments, snacks and ice; and free Wi-Fi. The FBO is open daily from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. CST (it is currently the only Sheltair facility not in the Eastern U.S. time zone).
Sheltair charges a ramp fee but will waive it with a minimum fuel purchase–both are based on aircraft size in an attempt to make it fairer for operators. Piston aircraft are exempt from ramp fees altogether. The FBO pumps 100LL and jet-A supplied by Hiller, and it participates in the Chevron FlyBuys rewards program. It also offers volume fuel discounts and contract fuel through World Fuel, Colt, UVair and the Corporate Aircraft Association.
Besides the terminal building, the FBO complex also includes 1,680 sq ft of rental office space that adjoins a 9,100-sq-ft hangar, in addition to more than five acres of parking space. The hangar space is already sold out, Lerma said, and about 15 business jets and turboprops are based at the airport, along with several dozen piston aircraft.
Sheltair ECP’s busy season–March to November–runs counter to that of most destinations in Florida. “Since we’re located farther north in the panhandle, our best weather is over the spring, summer and early fall,” Lerma told AIN. “We start to see a rise in traffic for spring break in March and our peak runs into the fall. Actually, the best time of year to visit is in April, when the weather is absolutely beautiful.”
And since the area is a resort location, Lerma said that his facility gets “lots of weekend traffic, as well as over the holidays.” It also sees a lot of fractional aircraft traffic during these peaks. On holiday weekends, Sheltair’s five-acre ramp and an overflow area that the airport allows it to use are typically packed. Rental cars can also become quite scarce during these peaks, according to Lerma, so he advises crews to plan ahead if they need a car. Sheltair has Hertz cars on site, but there are several other auto rental companies at the airline terminal.
Once traffic levels increase further and the economy is on more solid ground, Sheltair plans to double the size of its footprint at the airport. According to Lerma, this eventual expansion to the south would include a 20,000-sq-ft hangar, four to six smaller “box hangars” for based corporate flight departments and more ramp. “Right now we’re just waiting for growth in the economy before we even think about Phase 2,” he said.
Airport deputy executive director McClellan doesn’t think Lerma will have to wait all that long for such a recovery, at least in the Panama City/Bay County area. “Bay County is well positioned for the future,” he said, noting that the area is a haven for defense contractors since it sits between Eglin and Tyndall Air Force Bases, near Fort Rucker and is home to the U.S. Naval Surface Warfare Center. “We also have plenty of land for development, a huge pool of trained professionals and a tourist/resort area with a spectrum of accommodations.”