Only a handful of air passengers were hopping off flights at Key West International Airport due to the coronavirus pandemic. Numbers are rebounding, however, and on track to surpass 2019 figures. 

With the introduction of additional flights and more passengers forecasted, county officials are moving forward on plans to improve the airport facility’s capacity with additional seating, baggage claim conveyors and plane parking. 

Monroe County Director of Airports Richard Strickland told county commissioners during a recent meeting that passenger numbers during the pandemic were down to nine people exiting a plane at Key West. In May, passenger numbers were as low as 485 compared to 1,629 the year before. 

Fast forward to October: daily scheduled seat numbers are expected to be around 1,400. That’s slightly down from 1,534 the year prior. By November, those numbers are expected to meet and exceed 2019 figures. 

“We have been tracking as the No. 1 recovery airport in the nation,” Strickland said. “It goes week to week between us and Punta Gorda. As we continue to go through this, we continue to accelerate.”

Needs for Concourse A enhancements are driven by increased numbers of peak departures and arrivals as well as increased passengers and baggage per flight. Earlier this month, United Airlines resumed its daily, nonstop service from Key West to Chicago O’Hare and Newark Liberty international airports. In addition, United is set to launch nonstop service five times a week between Key West and Washington Dulles International Airport. 

United Airlines is also beginning new, daily nonstop service between Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) and Key West International Airport (EYW) on Dec. 17.

The service, on United’s Embraer E175 aircraft, will offer seating for 70 passengers, with 58 main cabin and 12 first-class seats. The new seasonal flights, a new market with United for the Florida Keys, will run through March 27.

The airport expects air traffic to increase by an average annual rate of 2.4 percent over the next 20 years. By 2035, the airport is expected to be at or near capacity, with 1.1 million to 1.2 million passengers per year. 

“We’re going to wind up needing the additional hold room space,” Strickland said. “For those who have traveled out here we all know what the old room looks like. That hold room was from 1957 and is about 4,000 square feet.”

Earlier this month, United Airlines resumed its daily, nonstop service from Key West to Chicago O’Hare and Newark Liberty international airports. In addition, United is set to launch nonstop service five times a week between Key West and Washington Dulles International Airport. CONTRIBUTED

A master plan completed in 2018 outlined proposed short- and long-term upgrades to the facility. The project shows six new gates that would go up to the new terminal. Strickland said the plan is to increase the lounge room space to 18,000 square feet for passengers, with new concessions areas, bathrooms and a new security checkpoint area. Baggage claim conveyors would also be added. 

“You need more bag claim devices to handle the load of the luggage that’s got to be put on them,” he said. “During the peak times, we need more bag makeup space going out to the aircraft. We have a capacity shortfall that’s going to occur.”

The timeline would begin with selection for a design team, which is slated for the end of 2020.  Project design would continue through 2021 and end in 2022. Strickland said construction would then commence and continue through 2023 and 2024, with a proposed completion by the end of 2024.

“That end of construction is trying to get that new concourse A online before you get into the busy season of 2024 in November through May. Instead of going through another season under construction, the goal would be to be done by October 2024, hopefully before Fantasy Fest of that year.”

County commissioners approved a grant agreement for funding in the amount of $300,000 for planning studies. Commissioners also approved a resolution of a grant agreement for $840,000 for design, to be funded 50% by the Florida Department of Transportation and 50% by airport operating funds or passenger facility charges. 

Strickland said no general county dollars are going toward the project. Funding would come from FAA and FDOT grants and passenger facility charge revenues, among other sources.

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