EGLIN AFB — Pulling wheeled suitcases across the tarmac, 34 people boarded a twin-engine Saab 340 turboprop as the sun was rising Friday morning at Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport (VPS), for the inaugural flight to Orlando aboard Silver Airways.
Silver Airways is now offering daily non-stop flights between VPS and Orlando International Airport.
"Welcome to the family," Okaloosa County Airports Director Tracy Stage told Silver Airways CEO Steve Rossum during a ribbon-cutting ceremony before the passengers boarded Silver Airways Flight 3M140. "We know you will succeed."
"We're delighted to be in your community," Rossum told local officials, airport staff members and Silver Airways personnel on hand for the first flight.
The flight left VPS with a full load of passengers, just as the previous evening's flight from Orlando International to VPS had carried.
"We expect that this market is going to do really well," Rossum said in a brief interview following the ribbon-cutting, minutes before the departing aircraft passed under plumes of water from two Eglin Air Force Base fire trucks. The water salute is a typical celebration of an aircraft or airport milestone.
The Saab 340 carried a special paint scheme designed to honor veterans and active-duty military personnel. The plane's olive-drab military-look skin, punctuated with the words "Saluting Service Members" and a silhouette of a saluting soldier, will remain unchanged as an ongoing tribute to veterans and military personnel, Rossum said. It might not always be on the Destin-to-Orlando route, but the plane will stay in use somewhere within the Silver Airways system, Rossum said.
Silver Airways flies into and out of a number of military-oriented communities, including Pensacola, Key West and Huntsville, Alabama, Rossum noted.
"We're proud to dedicate this aircraft today to all the folks who have served and are serving," Rossum said at Friday's ceremony.
Silver Airways expects its Orlando service to attract a wide array of passengers, from business people to military personnel to leisure travelers, said Rossum, who called this area "a good new market for us."
"We do really well in these kinds of communities," said Rossum, who added that the Florida Panhandle "is exceedingly important to us."
It's possible that service from VPS to Orlando could be increased from one flight daily if revenue trends indicate additional service would be feasible, he said..
Okaloosa County Commissioner Carolyn Ketchel, the county liaison to the Okaloosa County Aviation Board, said the Silver Airways flights to and from Orlando mark the end of a five-year effort to get thet route.
Other than Washington, D.C., which is now served twice daily from VPS via American Airlines, Orlando had been the most requested route from VPS, according to Ketchel.
"It's just been amazing to watch the growth," Ketchel added.
Earlier this year, Allegiant Air announced new routes from Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport, including Chicago, Little Rock, Arkansas, and Des Moines, Iowa, bringing that airline to 37 destinations from VPS.
As part of its Friday debut, Silver Airways made a $2,500 donation to the Invisible Wounds Center on Eglin Air Force Base, a regional treatment center for post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury, associated pain conditions and psychological injuries.
Rossum said the donation marked just the first contribution that Silver Airways plans to make to the Invisible Wounds Center.
Flights leave VPS at 7:21 a.m. and arriving in Orlando at 10:05 a.m. eastern time. From Orlando, flights leave at 6:55 p.m. and arrive at VPS at 8:01 p.m. central time. The introductory fare for the flights is $99 one-way. That fare applies to tickets purchased before May 22 for travel on or before June 30.