New arrivals landing at Key West International Airport inevitably smile as they exit the aircraft and step, not into a portable jetway corridor, but directly onto the humid tarmac.
As the hot breeze tangles their hair, newcomers dig for sunglasses in their carry-on bags and remark upon the quaintness of a tiny island airport
But a growing number of those passengers continue to arrive every year. And while the island location of Key West International Airport (airport code EYW) lends itself to an easy walk across the tarmac, the increasing air traffic will likely prompt safety upgrades that eliminate that hot and windy walk.
The “new” terminal building at Key West International Airport opened more than 10 years ago, in 2009, and nearly doubled the capacity of the county-owned airport on South Roosevelt Boulevard.
But passenger counts have taken off in the past decade and continue to climb. Recent studies project that the airport will be operating at or near capacity — serving 1.1 million to 1.2 million annual passengers — by 2035.
With additional flights serving new cities, the airport exceeded projections in 2018 and served 870,000 passengers — about 100,000 more than anticipated.
“During the 2018 calendar year, Key West International Airport saw a 14% growth in total passengers,” while 2019 experienced a 12% increase, county documents state. “Key West International Airport is expecting air traffic to continue to increase by an average annual growth rate of 2.4% over the next 20 years.”
In August 2018, the County Commission approved the Key West International Airport master plan update, a comprehensive study of the airport. The last such update was done in 2003 — six years before the “new” terminal opened in February 2009.
The master plan update includes short- and long-term plans for airport improvements and expansions.
The existing terminal building, which locals continue to describe as “new,” was included in the 2003 master plan, while the 2018 plan calls for another terminal expansion in the next six to 10 years.
“The terminal expansion will complement the new terminal that was built in 2009,” the plan states. “It will include a new departure lounge, with more space for passengers and concessions, and connections to jet bridges that will increase passenger safety.”
The master plan also emphasizes that “future projects will continue the airport’s commitment to take into account sea level rise. The recent runway improvement project elevated the runway by 6 inches.”
More flights to new cities
Plenty of Keys residents can still recall a time when the only flights leaving Key West were bound for Miami, Fort Lauderdale or West Palm Beach, where passengers would then make connecting flights to “the rest of the world.”
But those days are long gone, and airlines operating at Key West International Airport now offer more flights to more cities than ever before.
Delta has been offering multiple direct flights to Atlanta since 2009, and those flights remain the most popular for passengers leaving the island.
But additional routes were added in 2019, with more coming this year.
Starting Feb. 15, American Airlines will offer nonstop service between Key West and Boston’s Logan Airport on Saturdays through May.
“This is the first time this route will be offered nonstop,” said Richard Strickland, Monroe County’s director of airports. “It will be a nice addition for travelers in the Northeast looking to escape the cold, or for our residents looking to visit New England.”
The newly added flight will be operated on a 76-passenger plane.
In addition to the new, direct Boston flights, the Key West airport provides direct service to Philadelphia, Chicago, Charlotte, Newark, Washington, D.C., Dallas, Atlanta, Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, Miami and Tampa.
“Top markets include New York/Newark, Washington/Baltimore, Philadelphia, South Florida and Chicago,” county records state.
Key West International Airport encompasses 334 acres and despite its location within the city limits, sits on land owned by Monroe County, which also operates the facility.
Originally called Meacham Field, the airport’s first scheduled flight occurred in 1928.
“During the WWII era, the airport was used by the United States Army,” states the county’s website. “In 1953, the city of Key West granted Monroe County clear title to Meacham Field. Shortly thereafter, Meacham Field became Key West International Airport, which now handles 50 to 60 commercial flights per day.”
As that figure continues to increase, the new master plan will guide the necessary improvements, including a new “new” terminal building.