GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - Airport executives say passenger counts at Gulfport Biloxi International Airport are down. That's why a celebration at the airport on Monday was so important to them.
Continental added two cities to its Gulfport schedule. Those cities are Tampa and Jacksonville, Florida. They're two markets that could be just the ticket to help the airport, and its tourism partners soar in the future.
The flights started a week ago. But airport leaders waited until Monday to roll out the red carpet. As the Tampa flight taxied toward the terminal, to airport fire trucks showered it with water. The only planes that get the water cannon treatment are the one's considered vital to Gulfport Biloxi International Airport's future.
Jeremiah Gerald is the airport's air service director.
"This basically reopens a very important, historical destination for us," he said.
Florida's west coast has become a key area for the airport and its tourism partners. Nancy Gaden learned that fact while the Continental sales manager was negotiating this deal.
"We're so excited about it because I think it's going to really help this market grow," she said.
Continental inked a deal with the IP and Grand Casino Biloxi to fly three times a week from Tampa, and three times a week from Jacksonville.
Celeste Christian is with the Amelia Island convention and visitors bureau near Jacksonville. She flew into Gulfport to attend the ribbon cutting.
"It just opens up a whole new doorway," she said.
The partnership comes at a time when airlines are struggling to get passengers on planes.
"It's very important to look at how to be creative and to be innovative in times like this," Gerald said.
In Gulfport's case, boardings are down because air service is down. Early last year, nine airlines brought passengers and their bags into the south Mississippi airport. Today, that number is down to five. Consequently, passenger counts could be off 12-14 percent compared to a year ago. Despite that drop, Continental is encouraged by what it sees so far, because its early bookings between Gulfport and Florida are quite strong.
"I don't think it's a risk because both IP and Grand Casino are guaranteeing a certain amount of seats to work with us," Gaden said.
Most of the 50 seat regional jet will be sold by the casinos. However, passengers can buy tickets to Tampa or Jacksonville on Continental's website. The airline's web page said a roundtrip ticket from Gulfport to either city was $216.
IP and Grand Casino will also be partners again next month when Southern Skyways offers jet service to and from Atlanta.
Beau Rivage is also marketing an air service program. It's using Allegiant Air to fly gamblers from Tampa to the Biloxi resort. And it had a flight on Monday returning to Houston.