Sometimes I feel like a one-person marketing department for the Key West Airport. I’m usually the one at happy hour not carping about long waits in baggage claim. I’m mostly unwelcome on social media when I don’t fall in line with the “reasons to hate the Key West airport expansion” discussions. (I’ve learned to scroll on by; easier than having my head handed to me.)
I like the Key West airport. Warts and all. I’ve liked it since the first time I landed, stepped foot on the tarmac and smelled that wicked blend of sea salt, sargassum, jet fuel, sweat and, depending on the wind direction, French fries. And, that outdoor, sandy, foul cigarette-and-beer smelling smokers’ beach with the white plastic chairs? Oh my stars and garters. Back in my smoking days, that was just heaven. A beach bar to welcome me home or send me back to the wilds of ‘Murica. I still hang out there for old times sake.
I like the Key West airport because, when I am picking up guests, I don’t leave the house until I hear the plane overhead. In season when land-based traffic is its ugly self, I can get from my house to the airport parking lot in 15 minutes and often less than 10. In July when Ranger Ed and I were doing a bunch of flying in and out, we went from house to check-in, through security and in chairs at the departure gate in 30 minutes and change.
I like the Key West airport because my luggage rolls around on carousel one within 20 minutes. Or is it carousel two? I forget. Doesn’t matter anyway; I can see both from one spot.
I like the Key West airport because the folks who check me in are the same ones who scan my departure ticket and troubleshoot various stuff. A lot of times those folks are friendly acquaintances from island life.
I like the Key West airport because if I’m needing an off-island fix in the big world, I can be in that Atlanta behemoth in under 105 minutes. Or Miami in less than 60, though why anyone would choose to fly through MIA instead of ATL is beyond my reckoning unless you’re going to Cuba or on some Caribbean vacation.
I like the Key West airport when they’ve lost my luggage for three days. Or when my flights into EYW are canceled because it’s too late, the lights are out and everyone has gone home. Or because there’s construction on the runway. Or when my flights are grounded for an hour because there’s a flash of lightning a few miles away. Or when the security lines extend out the doors and the departure gate is packed cheek-by-jowl.
My “home” airports used to be ORD, MKE, DCA, IAD, EWR and LGA. Now those were — and are — airports to hate. To arrive two hours before departures, I left my house at least four hours and usually five before boarding time. Lines snake everywhere; no one meets your eyes when you need help. Had to drive around backside and elbow to get there, always with gridlocked traffic (except that one night in 2000, when I got the almost-jail time speeding ticket coming out of MKE in the wee hours of the morning and didn’t see the cop until the laser flashed. I know that youngster thought he’d captured a fleeing drug dealer. I wish you could have seen his face when he saw me. “Look a bit like your mom?” I asked….)
Key West airport: We need the “nicey-nice”
Anyway, back to the point. I like Key West airport. Even now, when staffing shortages bollix up baggage, check-in, security lines, arrivals and departures. Through April, 559,911 travelers have gotten on and off planes in 2022. In 2021, for the same four-month period, that number was 449,887 — 2022 is a 24.5 percent increase. There are no signs that’s slowing down. Between not enough staff and record-setting travelers, EYW has had bad moments — many of them gleefully chronicled on social media, leaving a lot of us to think that’s how it always is.
I’m a fan of the new departure gateway due to open in October 2024. I know a lot of folks hate that expansion because, they say, it replaces quaint and real with concrete and dreary. It sorta does. Or because expansion will bring more people. Doubtful; they’re coming anyway. Or because the increase in flights rattles windows in Old Town. It does; mine, too. In season, between commercial flights and the ginormous number of private flights, I really do hate planes.
But we need that expansion with its jet bridges. Oh, maybe you don’t think so because you’re able bodied and never gave a passing thought to what it takes to get from gate to seat if you’ve broken your leg, had a stroke or use a wheelchair. Maybe your balance is better than mine and those ladder stairs aren’t daunting. Especially coming down with a carry-on. Or you’ve never been caught in a deluge as you and a hundred others stand halfway up the ramp in the winter when you get to shiver and smell damp wool for the duration. Talk about miserable.
Yeah, the new Key West airport departure gateway will be cut from boring cloth. And, sigh, I don’t see anything in the plans that looks like a smoking beach. We’re going to have to gussie it up the concrete, steel and glass to make it feel like Key West. From what I read last week, the things that would make the Key West airport still “be” our airport are on the chopping block. Airports Director Richard Strickland told the Citizen he’d proposed cutting about $4 million in “art and ‘nicey-nice’ features.”
Don’t let that happen. Sustaining our Key West mystique does not count as “nicey-nice.”