The perfect intersection of Northerners escaping to Southwest Florida for winters and holiday travel has been a boon for airlines over the years. Carriers ramp up flights into Southwest Florida International Airport with myriad seasonal routes from October to May.
With population growth in the region, however, RSW has experienced an upswing in full-time routes in the last five years, said Victoria Moreland, Lee County Port Authority chief communications and marketing officer. The airport’s new daily nonstop flights to the West Coast with new United Airlines full-time routes to Los Angeles and San Francisco, as well as Alaska Airlines’ Seattle route’s transition from a five-month route to a full-time one, gives the biggest indication that the top-50 airport for passenger traffic in the country is poised for an influx of new full-time routes.
Aviation consultant Michael Boyd said RSW, which broke passenger records in December with 1,085,569 passengers and served more than 10.3 million in 2021, is already in the midst of a boom.
“A place like Fort Myers, it’s about quality of life and quality of venue, it’s going to attract those dollars,” says Boyd, who is president of Boyd Group International and has spent 38 years in the industry. “It used to be if you’re going to Florida, Tampa, Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Orlando was it. Anywhere else, enjoy your connection in Atlanta. That’s not the case anymore. A place like Fort Myers can easily support San Francisco and Los Angeles.”
From 2019 to 2020, Charlotte, Collier and Lee counties saw a 2.3% gain in population (30,597 people). The University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research projects Lee’s population to grow 38.4% in the next 23 years, trailing only Lake and Osceola counties for biggest gains in the state. In the same projections, Collier is expected to grow by 34%.
Meanwhile, RSW began a $331 million project to expand its terminal, which includes consolidating Transportation Security Administration checkpoints into a new 16-lane configuration to improve efficiency. Additional seating, concession spaces and a business lounge are also part of the 164,000-square-foot remodeling. The project is expected to be completed in less than three years, and also will have 117,000 square feet of new walkways and concession space.
Moreland and Boyd agree more foot traffic will lead to adding more destinations to the airport’s resumé that already includes 58 cities, including four international destinations. RSW’s January Air Service update lists 44 of its 58 destinations as having full-time routes.
“It’s going to adjust based on demand,” Boyd says of the dynamic situation of seasonal versus full-time routes. “[Airlines] already are viewing it as a prime destination. That’s why you have West Coast service. That’s why you have Denver service. And another thing they’re going to have to deal with is more international service once this (COVID-19) thing dies down.”
Also working in RSW’s favor is declining business traffic that was already taking a hit before the pandemic, Boyd said. The vast increase of leisure traffic means more fares headed toward the area’s tropical weather and beautiful beaches.
Newer airplane technology, such as the Airbus 150-seat A220, also could be a game-changer for carriers. “It can fly between any two points in the United States and make money. It can go from Fort Myers to Jacksonville and make money and go from Fort Myers to L.A. and make money. That kind of flexibility gives airlines a huge amount of ability to mix and match where they fly,” Boyd says.
With RSW housing all but one domestic carrier, Moreland said she expects even more domestic nonstop routes to be announced from existing carriers. While seasonal routes will continue to be a factor, Southwest Florida residents and visitors can expect fewer layovers in their itineraries over the next decade.