Jack Edwards National Airport in Gulf Shores will soon have a new $5 million passenger terminal, according to NBC-15 News. While the airport currently operates without scheduled passenger services, that is expected to change once the terminal opens. The plan is to bring more tourists directly to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, without having to fly through the two airports in Mobile or the airport in Pensacola. Airport Authority Manager Scott Fuller thinks the airport can attract regional airline flights from places like Chicago, Houston, and Washington (DC), and Dallas. According to his numbers, nearly a half million passengers who live in and visit Gulf Shores/Orange Beach fly into the region's other airports. According to Fuller: "The biggest complaint we have is people have to drive here. If they have to go to Pensacola, or Mobile, that's still too far out of their way."
So this is a common sense solution to a problem, and one that should definitely help Gulf Shores/Orange Beach compete for beach business with other regional beach communities. It's a good move for our Alabama beach communities, but is it a great move for competitive airfares in our regions? Or for expanding low-cost air service to our area? That's a question we'll investigate here.
Currently, our region has three commercial airports -- the airport in Pensacola, plus two in Mobile. The Mobile situation is considered temporary, since the long-term plan is to build out the terminal at Mobile Downtown Airport and eventually move all scheduled services out of Mobile Regional Airport. Those three airports serve a population of just over 1.1 million people. For comparison, the single airport in Greater New Orleans serves a metro population of just under 1.3 million people. New Orleans has plenty of additional air carriers serving the city, beyond the five larger airlines that serve our region. And with that competition, some of the country's most competitive air fares. This happens in Nola, because... well, it's an international tourist city; but also, because one airport focuses service and fares to just one place. If you want to fly to New Orleans, you'll fly to Louis Armstrong International Airport.
It's a much different story here. With separate airports in Mobile and Pensacola, we may already be pushing up air fares and reducing competition. The big airlines fly to both airports, primarily on smaller, less fuel-efficient planes. That pushes up costs to the airlines and to consumers down the line. Neither airport is big enough to attract every airline that serves New Orleans, or that might normally serve a region this size. We don't have Spirit Airlines, JetBlue or Alaska, for example. It's enough of an issue that the Mobile Airport Authority (MAA) once explored the possibility of teaming up with Pensacola to build one big airport to serve both cities. That would have meant a single airport squarely in Baldwin County, but Pensacola officials did not want their airport to be in Alabama. Since then, everyone has moved on. Pensacola's airport is doing well; and Mobile has already opened a low-cost terminal at convenient Brookley Field, as the MAA moves toward moving all passengers services there.
Once Jack Edwards Airport opens its new passenger terminal and lures a couple of commercial airlines to serve it, there will almost certainly be an increase in tourism to our area, and especially our beach communities. That's a good thing.
The initial goal for for this new facility is rather small, maybe 10,000 passengers a year. But a new terminal in Gulf Shores could potentially draw far more people to it, and away from the region's other airports (especially Pensacola, where more leisure travelers fly). This may not matter in the long run, especially if enough new passengers fly to the Gulf Coast to offset the losses. But it could mean that three competing airports are all too small to attract more airlines, and thus more competition for low fares. It's really hard to say, and while I hate to be indecisive, a new passenger terminal in Gulf Shores could have exactly the opposite effect. That is, direct flights to the beach may be exactly what makes another airline decide to serve our region. We'll just have to see what happens.
The new terminal is still in the design stage, and in not expected to open for at least a couple of years.
Read/Watch the NBC-15 News report at THIS LINK.