WEST BAY — Although relocation of the Panama City–Bay County International Airport to West Bay hindered general aviation activity, officials at the new airport’s fixed-base operator (FBO) are seeing improvement.
“Our customer base has been growing every year that we’ve been here,” said Michael Lerma, the general manager of Sheltair at Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport (ECP). “We’ve been busy every year that we’ve been here.”
Sheltair provides services for general aviation, or all non-commercial flights, at ECP, including fuel services, the company’s main source of revenue, airplane storage and other insularly ground support services.
Thanks to steady customer growth, Sheltair is now seeking to significantly increase the amount of land leased from the Airport Authority. Lerma said the goal is to roughly double the ramp apron space, which is used primarily for aircraft parking.
The request is scheduled to go before the Airport Authority next month, according to ECP Director Parker McClellan, who said more leased space also would mean more revenue for the airport.
“It means that the general aviation industry is starting to come back a bit,” McClellan said. “Everything with the economy and when we moved, there was an impact on general aviation activity.”
In June, general aviation accounted for 3,658 flights and landings at ECP, compared with 1,422 on the commercial side. However, general aviation still is pacing behind last year, with year-to-date operations showing about a 3 percent decline.
Much like the airport’s commercial flights, Lerma said a majority of Sheltair’s customers are vacationers, with the busy season running during the summer months between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
“Our customers range from an owner/operator that’s flying themselves around with maybe their wife and family, all the way up to a corporation like Wal-Mart or Coca-Cola that’s flying an executive around,” Lerma said, positioning air charter companies and shared aircraft owners somewhere in between. “There’s a whole lot of different activity.”
Sheltair, a Fort Lauderdale-based company, operates 14 facilities across the U.S. , with locations in Florida , Georgia and New York . Lerma said dedication to excellent customer service is the core of the brand’s identity.
“In the industry, we really try to set ourselves apart based on service,” Lerma said. “You can go to any airport to get gas or a rental car. It’s about the service experience the customer receives.”