The Key West Mystique

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Key West airport

Key West airport | Let’s cut the whining, OK?

By Linda Grist Cunningham, editor and proprietor

Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and proprietor of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media LLC. She and her husband, a park ranger at Fort Zach, live in Key West with their Cat 5s.

01/16/2024

People-watching at baggage claim at the Key West airport ought to be on the top 10 list of entertaining things to do on the island.

You’ve got your couple hundred flock of arriving passengers hovering like pelicans surfing for lunch around a baggage carousel made for preschoolers. You’ve got QMitch gloriously directing traffic over the PA in that fabulous voice while another agent translates him into “Please step away from the carousel; those aren’t your bags. Yours are next up.”

You’ve got people hugging, kids running amok and first-timers huffing and puffing because it’s just so — insert an eye-rolling whine here — slow. Behind you there’s a kerfuffle at the rental car desk because someone’s being a Karen. She has Ken in tow and he’s getting into the act now.

There’s my Ranger Ed, amid the circus, standing calmly next to the pillar and taller than most of the crowd, so he’s easily spotted. He swoops in for one bag, then the second, and I walk in from the way-back to roller them out the door to freedom.

We leave Ken and Karen, who are still at it, behind. Ditto the family of five that is all a-tither because it appears one of their five gargantuan suitcases has gone astray. It’s the silver one, they tell the agent, as if she’s a unicorn who can magically make a silver suitcase appear. Seems these grumbling tourists didn’t know there were actual bag tag numbers to make finding easier. (The bag appeared just as the exit doors closed behind us.)

Key West Island News

Key West airport | People-watching at its best

Welcome to the Key West airport.

Like everything else in Key West that’s changed with the decades, the once quaint, ramshackle airport with its outdoor smoking beach is fading into the nostalgic sea mist and being replaced with Cat 5 concrete, rebar and steel, eight departure gates with modern bridge ways and, sigh, that chain-operated restaurant, Chili’s. Fear not. The old Conch Flyer restaurant and bar are getting a facelift and the First Call Bar expands smack in the middle of the arrivals terminal. Smoking, the last of the anything-goes-in-Key West culture, is banned now, though there’s no 21st Century temperance movement to slow down the dying-for-a-drunk-vacation crowd.

I’m a fan of the Key West airport. I love knowing I can get there from here. That I can wait at home until I hear the incoming flight over my house before heading out to pick up a friend. I love I can take a taxi with a local driver behind the wheel who knows where my house is. (Rarely true of the ride-share drivers who need GPS and cautionary instructions about one-way streets.)

I love that Delta, in particular, rarely delays a flight and almost always has my bags on the sliver of a carousel in less than 20 minutes. (It takes longer than that in Atlanta, by the way, what with a mile-long hike from plane to baggage claim.)

And I love the ingenuity and sheer workflow planning that’s going into building the new, $119-million Concourse A that opens officially in 2025. I mean, imagine what it takes to accommodate more than a million passengers annually all the while constructing an engineering marvel in the background. It’s a miracle there aren’t more snafus.

While a whole bunch of locals lament the passing of walking to a plane in the rain and stumbling up obscenely high stairways that were, they say, part of the Key West airport character, I, for one, am delighted I’ll not be soaked before getting to my seat. Most of all, I am thankful that folks needing assistance will get it with dignity. (You try making the trek from gate to seat after a stroke or with a broken leg, or a passel of kids and people needing a wheelchair assist. I guarantee you’ll pray for a covered jet bridge.)

Oh, sure, I get it. The new airport’s architecture is going to look like every other cookie-cutter regional airport in the country. That started with the now-not-new ticketing area, which opened Feb. 25, 2009, the first modern renovation since the airport got its paved runway in 1956. It’s been a significant improvement, so much so that most of us can’t remember the congested awfulness of the old one. Maybe the new Concourse A will dispel a lot of misplaced nostalgia.

But. We do need to slap some Key West glitter and lipstick on this concrete-steel-and-glass box — and that includes mural-painting that boring, minimalist, black-and-white airport entrance sign. That ought to be done now, and once Concourse A gets toward opening, let’s make sure those walls get all the Key West-ness they can hold.

9 Comments

  1. Mike

    Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. They paved over paradise.

    Reply
    • Donna King

      Amen…

      Reply
  2. Christine Gorham

    Has anyone in the County leadership or Airport Management offices thought about what it takes to screen the thousands of passengers through Checkpoint now run by TSA? At the time we barely have enough TSA Officers to run two lanes! Can’t imagine Four

    Reply
  3. Derek Mathers

    Key West Jimmy Buffet International Airport

    Reply
  4. Pam

    Speaking of the “old” Conch Flyer – open all hours of the night and quite a “local” hangout in the wee hours.

    Reply
  5. Kelli Penick

    I just hope they keep the “welcome family” that is always there to greet us! It’s the first thing we look forward to then on to the First Call!

    Reply
  6. Greg

    Thank you! I am looking forward to the improvements. I am over walking to or from the airplane in the rain, then sitting in a freezing plane until Atlanta. Yes I remember the days when you stood beside the plane and waited for your luggage or stood on the other side of the “whole in the wall” that they tossed luggage through. That was many years ago and the planes are much bigger now, its not practical now. Lets move on and embrace the positive change.

    Reply
  7. Kehaulani Murray

    I’m ok with the upgrades but has the county leadership walked into the arrival bathrooms with 2 planes arrive how can the keep it clean when it’s bigger. Saturday someone threw up in the toilet and sink, still there bathrooms full 2 planes arriving and arriving area full door knobs are broken the hooks are broken never had been fixed in months.

    Reply
    • Linda Grist Cunningham

      Definitely a good point. I was in there last week and, yep, they were pretty nasty.

      Reply

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