MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block. Happy Thanksgiving.
And as you digest this holiday, try not to think too hard about the hassle many of us face this coming weekend - that dreaded second trip to the airport for the flight home. Some 27 million Americans are expected to fly this Thanksgiving holiday, more than ever before. And that means more chances for congestion and more chances for delays. Overall, air travels made a big comeback since the drop off after 9/11. Seventeen million more people flew in the first eight months of this year compared with 2006.
But more passengers has not meant more airports. In fact, next month, in Panama City on Florida's panhandle, construction is scheduled to begin on the nation's first new airport in nearly a decade.
As NPR's Greg Allen reports, it provides a case study of why it's so hard to build a new airport.
GREG ALLEN: It was a chamber of commerce moment.
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ALLEN: The scene earlier this month was about 20 miles northwest of Panama City, the ceremonial groundbreaking of a new facility. It was captured on a local real estate blog, PCBdaily.com.
But even at this feel-good event complete with caterers, tents and hundreds of people from the community, Panama City-Bay County Airport Authority Chairman Joe Tannehill couldn't help but be a little defensive. When earlier leaders changed the community's name from Harrison to Panama City, when they built bridges tying Bay County's islands to the mainland, Tannehill says those decisions also were unpopular, but in the end, the right thing to do.
JOE TANNEHILL: There is always a certain amount of contest, there's a certain amount of why you're really doing this. But to the people of this community, we cannot afford to lose our air carrier.
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ALLEN: Panama City's current airport certainly isn't at the breaking point. The roughly two dozen flights that come and go here each day don't overtax the current facility. The problem is the airport's runway. It's one of the shorter runways in the country, and the Federal Aviation Administration wants longer runways for safety reasons.
Ten years ago, plans to extend the current airport's runways ran into opposition from environmental groups because of its impact on St. Andrew Bay. Panama City's airport authority then turned to the biggest land owner in the area, the St. Joe Company.
St. Joe was a former paper company that is now developing much of its land. The company agreed to donate 4,000 acres in the middle of one of its pine forests for a brand new airport about twice the size of the current facility.
Airport head Randy Curtis says the new airport will do more than just expand the runways. He believes it will be a catalyst for the local economy.
RANDY CURTIS: Well, we definitely see the service expanding. This is a very rapidly growing area here. We've had several carriers' expressed interest in serving Panama City in the past, but simply because of the restrictions, they have not been able to do that.
ALLEN: The price tag? At least $330 million, and it's generated opposition from some local residents like Don Hodges. Hodges, a former delta executive, says he'd seeing no evidence the new airport would do anything to increase airline service.
DON HODGES: I take no pleasure in being a critic. All I have done is read back their numbers to them because their numbers do not support their press release.
ALLEN: Hodges calls the project, quote, "basically a land deal" that will spur development in an area that's currently just pineland. And while he says there's no demonstrated need for the airport, Hodges concedes that it may help with the area's economic development.
HODGES: Our community aspirations, you know, what is that worth? You know, I would argue that 20 or 25 things the community needs more than $400 million invested 30 miles away in communities that don't exist.
ALLEN: He is not alone. A nonbinding referendum conducted three years ago found that a majority of county residents who voted didn't support the new airport's construction. While Hodges and others in Panama City raised question about the proposed airport, an environmental group took action.
The Natural Resources Defense Council says the new airport will destroy wetlands and hurt water quality in the bay. NRDC filed a lawsuit, challenging the FAA's approval of the new airport. That action divided environmental groups in Florida. While some local groups support NRDC's efforts to block the airport, others, notably Autobahn and the Nature Conservancy, are lined up on the other side, in support of the new facility.
ED KEPNER: This is West Bay. Here's Panama City.
ALLEN: Ed Kepner spreads out a map on the hood of his pickup truck. Kepner's a field biologist, who spent much of his career documenting crayfish, dragonflies and the other plants and animals that he says makes St. Andrew Bay the most diverse ecosystem in North America. As part of the airport deal, the St. Joe Company has done something unusual for a developer. It's agreed to preserve more than 40,000 acres of pine forests and wetlands surrounding the western part of St. Andrew Bay.
Kepner takes me to one of his favorite spots in the West Bay Area. It's a salt marsh, once taken over for shrimp farming that's now been returned to its natural state.
KEPNER: See how clear the water is? This is tidal waters from the bay. We're at low tide now.
ALLEN: So this whole area could be underwater if high tide then?
KEPNER: Yeah. Ain't it beautiful?
ALLEN: Under the airport plan, the still-largely pristine area surrounding the bay will be placed off limits to the development. Kepner calls it ecologically a fantastic thing.
KEPNER: People, you know, say, well, how can you support that airport? Well, enough of that. The airport, I know nothing about. I'm supporting the conservation plan and plan development. And when you link to something like this, that's what it's all about.
ALLEN: St. Andrew Bay is an important stop on the flyway for migratory birds. And also as part of the deal, the St. Joe Company is working with Autobahn of Florida to set up a nature center on the West Bay.
Eric Draper(ph) of Autobahn says it's not that his group doesn't like lawsuits. They have suits pending now against developers in other parts of Florida. But in this case, Draper says, what environmentalists are getting in the preservation of West Bay, far outweighs the negative consequences of the new airport.
ERIC DRAPER: There is not another place in Florida where you've got an unprotected 33 miles of shoreline and 40 miles of creeks. So this is the last spot to have the opportunity to do something like this.
ALLEN: Panama City's airport authority hopes to have its financing in place and details worked out so it can begin construction of the new airport by the middle of next month.
Don Hodges still holds out hope that a federal judge in New York who's hearing the FAA challenge will step in. But he concedes, time appears to be running out.
HODGES: Probably starting construction is a tipping point. My assumption here - there is that greed will overcome fear and that financing will hold together because the downside doesn't come for several years yet.
ALLEN: Kirk Shaffer, the FAA's associate administrator of airports says in one respect, Panama City's airport is typical of other new projects. Anytime there's an announcement about a new airport, he says, lawsuits soon follow.
KIRK SHAFFER: We do have a need for new airports in this country and for major airport projects in the country. And sometimes, the litigation slows them down.
ALLEN: Building a new airport require several things - political will, sound financing and the ability to negotiate a thicket of legal requirements and environmental regulations.
In Panama City, officials say, if construction gets underway next month, the new airport should be open by 2010.
Greg Allen, NPR News.
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