Vision plans major expansion, Northwest Florida base

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US carrier Vision Airlines is planning a major expansion of its scheduled operation with a new base at Northwest Florida Regional Airport.

Vision on 18 January announced it will launch early this spring 17 new routes from Northwest Florida Regional Airport, located near the Gulf of Mexico communities of Fort Walton Beach and Destin. Vision director of sales and marketing Clay Meek tells ATI and Flightglobal the carrier will base three aircraft in Destin - one 136-seat 737-300, one 150-seat 737-400 and one 30-seat Dornier 328 turboprop.

The carrier currently only operates two routes from Northwest Florida - to Niagara Falls in upstate New York and Miami. Both of these routes were launched last month and operate twice per week with 737s based elsewhere.

Starting on 25 March Vision will base aircraft at Northwest Florida and link the airport with Atlanta; Birmingham, Alabama, Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Greenville/Spartanburg, South Carolina; Huntsville, Alabama, Knoxville Tennessee, Little Rock, Arkansas; Louisville, Kentucky, Macon, Georgia, Savannah, Georgia; and Punta Gorda and St Petersburg, Florida.

On 1 April Vision will add service from Northwest Florida to Ashville, North Carolina; Chattanooga, Tennessee; Colombia, South Carolina; Orlando Sanford, Florida; and Shreveport, Louisiana.

All 17 new routes will be served with two to four weekly flights. Ashville, Atlanta, Chattanooga, Colombia, Greenville, Knoxville, Little Rock, Louisville, Orlando, and Shreveport will be served with 737s. Birmingham, Huntsville, Punta Gorda, Macon and Savannah will be served with 328s while Baton Rouge and St Petersburg will be served with a mix of 737s and 328s.

Meek says Vision now operates five 328s, two 737-300s and four 737-400s, primarily on charters. But Vision has operated a small 737 scheduled operation, primarily out of Gulfport in Mississippi, since 2009.

Meek says Destin represents Vision's first major foray into the scheduled market and says the carrier is planning further expansion of its scheduled operation as it takes additional 737s. He says Vision plans to add one 737-400 at the beginning of February, followed by one 737-300 and one 737-400 in June, giving it a fleet of nine 737s.

"We certainly see growing in scheduled but won't leave our core [charter] business out." Meek says. "The longer term is to come up to 10 or 12 aircraft in scheduled service and hold there. We'll not try to be the biggest out there."

He says Vision is looking at several possible new scheduled destinations, following a small market leisure model similar to Allegiant Air. He says 737 scheduled services from Allegiant's hometown of Las Vegas, where Vision already operates a mix of scheduled and charter services to the Grand Canyon with 328 and 228 turboprops, is "high on the list".

Like Allegiant, Vision has a sister travel company which will be used to help support expansion of the scheduled operation by selling hotel rooms. Vision was purely a charter carrier until 2006, when it began offering scheduled services from its Las Vegas base to the Grand Canyon with some of its 328s.

Currently, only regional jets are operated from the Northwest Florida airport. According to schedules in Innovata, the airport today is only served with regional jets, including American Eagle service from Dallas, Continental Express service from Houston, Delta Connection service from Atlanta and Memphis and US Airways Express service from Charlotte

Securing Vision is part of a campaign at Northwest Florida Regional Airport, also known as VPS for its three letter designator, to recover traffic following a challenging 2010 due to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The oil spill had a big impact on tourism along Florida's Emerald Coast.

"Located between Panama City to the east and Pensacola to the west, we expect to draw passengers from all of Northwest Florida - making VPS the major airport on Florida's Emerald Coast," Northwest Florida Regional Airport business development manager Michael Stenson says in a statement.

The area is also served by a new airport which opened at Panama City, Florida last year. Southwest Airlines and Delta Air Lines both currently serve Panama City.

Meek says Vision choose Fort Walton Beach/Destin over Panama City because "I didn't want to compete with Southwest. We're using different airports and flying to different cities. Southwest will only help us because they are also promoting this area."

He says Vision has not received any revenue guarantees from Northwest Florida Regional Airport but the airport will help market its new routes.