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One million passengers

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  • | 12:54 a.m. January 2, 2016
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Charlotte County Airport Authority

Why 2016 is important: With a traffic milestone imminent, the Punta Gorda Airport could add more airlines soon.

By the time Charlotte County Airport Authority Executive Director Gary Quill retires next September, the Punta Gorda Airport could hit 1 million passengers.

That milestone would put it in the same league as Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport and St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport, both with about 1.2 million passengers annually.

“This year we'll end up over 800,000 passengers,” says Quill, acknowledging that 1 million passengers next year might easily be within reach.

Surprisingly, the airport has achieved this with only one carrier, discounter Allegiant, one of the most profitable airlines in the industry. “The way airlines and airports are headed, we think we've found a niche,” says Quill. “A lot of small airports are facing difficult issues.”

The airport's growth was born from disaster, when Hurricane Charley blew through Charlotte County in 2004 and tore down hangars that served to train World War II pilots. “We had a World War II layout and we rebuilt with a modern layout,” Quill says. “That gave us the ability to start from scratch.”

Still, the hurricane was a blow because the airport lost rental income from the hangars that were destroyed. “I'm not sure we're solvent,” Quill remembers telling the authority board.

But the airport's board pressed ahead, removing old structures from the apron and installing proper drainage so passenger jets could move about safely. To lure airlines, the airport waived landing and other fees. What it didn't charge airlines it made up for in rental-car fees and parking.

The first attempt at luring an airline was a bust. Discounter Skybus went out of business shortly after starting operations in Punta Gorda, leaving some passengers stranded. But Quill was undeterred because it showed the airport could handle passengers who were willing to drive from Fort Myers and Sarasota. “It gave us a track record,” he says.

Quill has been proven right. Allegiant started flying to Punta Gorda in 2009 and has grown its operations here with nonstop service to 30 cities today. The company specializes in flying from second-tier cities in the Northeast and Midwest such as Harrisburg, Pa., Fort Wayne, Ind., and Toledo, Ohio.

Allegiant has grown to the point where it now bases airline crews in Punta Gorda. The airline is also adding larger Airbus planes that can carry more passengers. The airline draws budget-minded passengers from Sarasota to Marco Island who prefer to avoid congested hubs like Atlanta. “We call it SaraMyers,” Quill chuckles.

To accommodate the growth, the authority is expanding the Bailey Terminal from 16,000 square feet to 56,000 square feet, nearly the size of a football field. Construction is scheduled to be completed in the spring.

Quill says the airport watched expenses carefully, avoiding what he calls “the edifice complex” that is prevalent at other airports. “We borrowed less than $5.8 million and we'll pay it over 10 years,” says Quill. One commissioner told him the new terminal looked like Wal-Mart; “We took it as a compliment,” he quips.

Now, the airport is planning to add 500 parking spaces. But don't expect a covered garage because that's too costly, Quill says. “Low overhead makes the whole thing work,” he says.

Quill says Allegiant's track record could lead to more airlines starting operations at Punta Gorda Airport, a fact that was hard to envision just 10 years ago. “I pinch myself,” he smiles.

Follow Jean Gruss on Twitter @JeanGruss


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