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Pensacola port, airport tout successes

Port Airport city of Pensacola 111521.jpg
City of Pensacola

Mayor Grover Robinson’s weekly news conference took a little road trip Monday, to the Port of Pensacola — where that facility and Pensacola International Airport were the main topics of discussion.

“This is our chance to tell the story about what is going on and what we are doing,” said Robinson, who then turned it over to former port director Amy Miller, who’s now the city's deputy administrator, who looked back at the “good old days.”

“Pensacola International Airport was Pensacola Regional Airport, and there were two airlines and they both flew to Atlanta,” she said. “And you could show up 25 minutes before your flight and not have any problem getting to the gate on time. Likewise, the Port of Pensacola used to be the sleepy little Port of Pensacola, with not a whole lot going on.”

But she was quick to add that was then — this is now.

“Not only did the airport make it through COVID-19, but they’ve come back breaking all the records that they’ve ever posted out there,” Miller said. “And the Port of Pensacola — when you came in this morning you saw something entirely different; and likewise, the port is also breaking every record it’s ever posted.”

“So I came in this morning, I saw a ship behind me; I feel a little bit uncomfortable — it should be an airplane, but that’s OK, because I see a bunch of drones flying around. So thank you for that,” said Matt Coughlin, director of Pensacola International Airport.

It’s been an interesting couple of years there, he says, pointing to COVID-19. He pointed to where the airport was at, and the pandemic’s immediate impact. He mentioned record growth in 2018 and ‘19.

“So all of a sudden the pandemic hits, and just like everybody, that went way down,” said Coughlin. “Overnight our business — people coming through the front door and get on airplanes — those numbers went down 92% overnight, just like the industry across the country.”

But Coughlin says they’ve found in the year and a half since then, their numbers consistently were about 20 percentage points higher than the nationwide industry figures.

“Over the summer — I look at numbers between Memorial Day and Labor Day — our enplanements were up 25 percent from 2019, which is huge,” Coughlin said. “We were able to bring on two new airlines: Spirit and Boutique. Our number of destinations went up — typically during the summer, we ride about 20 nonstop destinations — we went up to 30.”

And in his prepared remarks, Coughlin had an announcement: Delta Airlines will begin providing nonstop daily service between Pensacola and LaGuardia Airport in New York. The flights begin Dec. 18 through May 4, but they could go beyond.

“We see the next summer coming; we see enplanements continuing to grow; [and] with that growth we see a lot of challenges around the airport,” Coughlin said. “Whether it’s parking your car when you come in, or longer lines — that’s a good problem to have. But at the same time, we have to be ready to meet those challenges.”

Work to meet those challenges includes building about 300 more parking spaces; a remain overnight ramp for parking aircraft, and a new customs and boarding facility is due to be completed next summer.

Meanwhile, over at the Port of Pensacola .…

“Welcome to our port — I like to say ‘our port’ because we are a regional asset,” said Port Director Clark Merritt. “We support the citizens and Northwest Florida, and we do that with the help of our seven long-term tenants.”

One example he gave was the Port’s relationship with CEMEX, a global building materials company based in Mexico, that’s been at the port for almost two decades.

“They are importing from Mexico bulk cement — and this just started recently over the past about 12 months — our total imports this year were up over 50% to 173,000 tons,” Merritt said.

Much of that increase, he added, is from CEMEX increasing their vessels and investing about 1 million dollars in upgrades at the port to be able to handle the added cargo.

“Having those raw materials coming in via vessel, it keeps prices down, right?” Merritt said. “You don’t have to import that aggregate, or that bulk cement, from some other location: Panama City, Mobile, etc. So that’s key to us, and key to the area.”

Another port tenant, Offshore Inland Marine, is becoming Pensacola’s gateway to the stars.

“Offshore has the contract with Blue Origin, which is modifying that former cargo vessel for Blue Origin to turn it into a land-platform vessel which will catch the new Grand Rocket – the big rocket,” said Merritt. “People say the only space port in Florida is Cape Canaveral; you can say, ‘No, the Port of Pensacola is [also] in the space race.’”

Merritt also cited another tenant — Pensacola Bay Oysters — as an example of diversity at the port, and Pensacola Bay Cruises, which recovered from Hurricane Sally to work a full season this year.

Dave came to WUWF in September, 2002, after 14 years as News Director at the Alabama Radio Network in Montgomery, Mobile and Birmingham and a total of 27 years in commercial radio. He's also served as Alabama Bureau Chief for United Press International, and a stringer for the Birmingham Post-Herald.