DAYTONA BEACH — Richard Agnew was surprised to be welcomed to applause and cheers as he got off his American Airlines flight here from Philadelphia shortly before noon Thursday.
Agnew was the first arriving passenger on one of two new daily nonstop routes to Daytona Beach that American Airlines launched on Thursday. The other is service to the airline’s main hub airport in Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas.
In all, 11 passengers got off that first flight from Philadelphia to Daytona Beach, with airport officials attributing the low number to the nasty winter weather in the Northeast.
Crystal Byrd, a spokeswoman for American Airlines, said 21 passengers were booked to take the inaugural flight from Daytona Beach to Philadelphia that was scheduled to depart at 12:15 p.m.
The inaugural incoming flight from Dallas later in the day Thursday had 38 passen
“It makes it so much more convenient,” said Agnew of the just over two-hour flight he took from Philadelphia.
Agnew works in southern New Jersey just a short drive to Philadelphia. He owns an oceanfront vacation condominium in Daytona Beach Shores.
“Before I was flying to Charlotte (North Carolina) and then having to switch over to another flight to get here. You could add another hour to an hour and a half to my travel time.”
American Airlines for now is offering daily nonstop service to Daytona Beach from Philadelphia and Dallas/Fort Worth through the end of April. American regularly offers multiple flights daily from Daytona Beach to its hub airport in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“They (service to the two new destinations) are seasonal at this point, but we’re hoping to making them permanent year-round,” said Lisa Schwartz, general manager of Daytona Beach operations for Piedmont Airlines/American Airlines.
Piedmont is the regional airline that provides the smaller 74- and 70-seat jetliners that American uses on flights to smaller airports such as Daytona Beach.
“We just hired seven new people when we started these new flights,” said Schwartz who now oversees a staff of 35 at Daytona Beach International Airport.
American will evaluate the level of demand for its new Daytona Beach-Philadelphia and Daytona Beach-Dallas/Fort Worth routes between now and April 30 before making a decision on whether to continue those routes, according to Daytona airport officials.
Brian Sanders, a regional manager for Piedmont Airlines/American Airlines, said American will take the lower-than-typical passenger traffic because of the coronavirus pandemic into consideration in making its decision regarding the new routes.
“We’re always looking for new growth opportunities,” said Sanders of the decision to offer service to two new destinations to and from Daytona Beach. “It was the right time in light of the current COVID situation. But regardless of that, I think Daytona in itself is an attractive market.”
Daytona Beach International Airport Director Karen Feaster said Daytona airport began 2020 with passenger traffic on pace to exceed 2019 levels. The onset of the COVID-19 crisis caused air travel to plummet worldwide, not just locally.
April 4 marked Daytona airport’s low point when it only counted 67 passengers on incoming and outgoing flights. Since then, passenger traffic has steadily improved but remains well below pre-pandemic levels.
The decision by American to add daily nonstop service to two new destinations is ending 2020 on a high note for the Daytona airport in what otherwise has been one of its most challenging years ever.
“At a time when many airlines have been forced to pull out of a number of airports, American has been a solid partner and has showed their confidence in this market by adding two new flights,” said Feaster.
American suspended its once-a-week nonstop Daytona Beach-New York service when the coronavirus pandemic began to take its toll on U.S. air travel in March. Feaster said she has not yet heard when the airline might resume those flights to and from LaGuardia Airport. She said American could be waiting until the pandemic finally ends.
“They’re probably waiting for a more stable time to restart (flights to New York),” Feaster said.
American’s launch of daily nonstop service to Dallas/Fort Worth and Philadelphia comes as Daytona Beach International Airport is nearing completion of a $14 million makeover of its main terminal. Airport spokeswoman Joanne Magley said the project is on track to be completed in February. “Most everything’s done, but there are still a few punch items left to do,” she said.
The terminal makeover is the airport’s first major renovation since it opened in 1992. The project has given the airport a more modern look with new terrazzo tile flooring and more natural light as well as a new waterfall-like feature next to the escalators to the second level. New amenities include cell phone/tablet charging stations throughout the airport, more comfortable public seating, a mother’s room and a business center that includes a book-lending library.
The airport on Thursday also began a $7.6 million project to repave and improve its short-term and long-term parking lots as well as Catalina Drive, Innovation Way and the rental car parking area. The project will add new directional signs, LED lighting and ticket dispenser canopies to shield motorists from rain. The parking lot improvement project is expected to take 10 months. During construction, the airport will lower the maximum fee for all-day parking to $12, down from the normal $15 fee. Parking for the first 15 minutes remains free.
The improvement projects follow the recent completion of the airport’s $38 million repaving of its asphalt aircraft taxiways.
The airport does not use Volusia County taxpayer money for these improvements. Instead its operational budget comes solely from revenues it generates from airlines, rental car agencies and other tenants including Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, hotels, restaurants and private aviation users. It also receives grants from the Federal Aviation Administration and the Florida Department of Transportation for capital improvement projects.
Volusia County Council member Heather Post joined airport and Piedmond Airlines/American Airlines officials in a ribbon-cutting event on Thursday morning to celebrate the launch of American’s daily nonstop service to two new destinations.
“This is another example of Volusia County moving forward into the future,” said Post. She noted in a speech given before the ribbon cutting that the airport gave the local economy a boost of approximately $2.1 billion in 2019, according to a Florida Department of Transportation study.
“With these new additional flights, that adds to the number of people coming to this area and increases the airport’s economic impact,” she said.
Carol and Alfred Mason of Cape May Court House, New Jersey, said they were looking forward to flying in the inaugural nonstop flight from Daytona Beach to Philadelphia on Thursday. The couple have a winter home in Flagler Beach.
“We’re getting picked up (at Philadelphia International Airport) by our grandson,” Carol Mason said. “It’s an hour to an hour-and-a-half drive from there to our home in New Jersey.”
“My daughter who works for American Airlines told us about this flight and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s great. We don’t have a change-over (in flights),'” she said. “Usually we go out of Jacksonville (International Airport). This is our first time flying out of Daytona. I love it. Jacksonville is better than Orlando (International Airport), but Daytona is even better.”
Mason said she and her husband were impressed with the look of Daytona airport as well as the ease of parking and friendly airport staff.
Airport staffers were handing out free fans to air travelers on Thursday The fans had the phrases “Welcome to Daytona Beach:” and “DAB (heart) Philadelphia” emblazoned on either side. Airport volunteer Melinda Johnson was also handing out free “DAB Cares” coronavirus safety kits that included a face mask and small bottle of hand sanitizer solution.
Carol Mason said she hopes American will continue to offer daily nonstop service to Philadelphia.
“We’ve talked to friends who said they’re also going to use this new (Daytona Beach-Philadelphia) service to visit friends in New Jersey,” she said.
This article originally appeared on The Daytona Beach News-Journal: Daytona airport welcomes start of daily flights to Dallas, Philly