Key West’s airport hit a new record with passengers. But it has brought problems

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Key West International Airport just set an annual record by having more than 1 million passengers come through.

That’s 1 million people — so far — with airport officials predicting the number will hit 1.4 million by the end of the year.

While it’s evidence that tourism to the Florida Keys is booming and removes some traffic on the heavily used U.S. 1, the only highway that runs up and down the island chain, it has also brought problems.

There’s not much personal space these days in the “hold room,” the area where people wait to board their flights.

The departure area is “horrible,” with an average wait time of 45 minutes, said Richard Strickland, the Monroe County Director of Airports.

Getting through the TSA checkpoint also takes an average of 45 minutes.

These waits will be solved by an $80 million expansion in the form of a new concourse, Strickland told the Monroe County Commission on Wednesday.

But that involves more waiting.

Concourse A remains in the design phase and isn’t expected to open until late 2024.

“This is your solution to all of the problems that we currently have there,” Strickland said. “We’re all going to get there together.”

In 2019, the Key West airport saw 969,069 passengers, while in 2020, the first year of the coronavirus pandemic, the count was 641,876.

County Mayor Michelle Coldiron asked whether the hold room is overcrowded.

The area has a capacity of 1,267 passengers.

“We don’t believe we ever exceed that number,” Strickland said.

Again, the answer, he said, is the new concourse.

“That will further give everybody more breathing room,” Strickland said.

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New flights added to Key West

The airport can’t deny an airline that wants to come into Key West, Strickland said. That’s the federal government’s territory.

“I try very hard to manage the situation and tell them we only have certain times available,” Strickland said.

One airline has added several nonstop flights to Key West.

In November, Allegiant Air plans to add nonstop service from North Carolina’s Asheville Regional Airport and St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport.

The airline also plans a nonstop route to Key West from Indianapolis starting Dec. 1.

“Key West is one of the most sought-after destinations in the U.S. right now,” said Drew Wells, Allegiant’s senior vice president of revenue and network planning, in a press release.

Wells said he expects the island to become an even bigger draw for travelers looking for an affordable vacation spot during the winter.

In June, Allegiant added twice-weekly nonstop service to Key West from Nashville, Pittsburgh and the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.

‘Everybody is making money’

City Commissioner Clayton Lopez said he wasn’t surprised by the airport’s record season. At any other time, he wouldn’t have much of a problem with it.

But this is happening during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Right now, I’m a little concerned because not everybody is masking,” Lopez said. “Not everybody is distancing.”

People are likely coming from places where COVID-19 is rampant, Lopez said.

“We can safely say we don’t know where all these people are coming from,” he said.

Tourists are spending plenty of cash at Key West businesses.

“Everybody is making money,” said Paul Menta, who owns a rum distillery in downtown Key West. “Because of what the airport’s doing you’ve got people staying longer.”

Menta, whose business is up 34% since 2019, said the island is so slammed that when tourism slowed down a little bit a couple of weeks ago, people were grateful for the short break.

“Then it just picked right back up again,” Menta said.

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