Passing through the traditional arch of water cannons, Southwest Flight 2524 received a Key West-style welcome Sunday afternoon during its maiden voyage to the island.
Traveling from frigid Columbus, Ohio, it was the first time a blue-and-orange 737-700 Whiskey aircraft has set its landing gear down on Runway 9 at Key West International Airport. Southwest bought AirTran airline in the spring and is now replacing the low-cost airline's planes with its own.
"It was great fun and a great sense of accomplishment," Monroe County Airports Director Peter Horton said while greeting passengers on the apron. "It was a mini-celebration."
The 83 guest were greeted with red carpet fanfare and plenty of hearty welcomes from airport workers, a Monroe County Sheriff's deputy and even a Homeland Security guard. It was hard to tell who was more excited, those on the apron welcoming the plane, or those landing in sunny 75-degree Key West.
Patti Broadstone, dressed in a white T-shirt with the saying, "It's five o'clock somewhere," and Mary Jane Risen both said when they left home in Ohio Sunday morning, they had no idea they were going to be part of a celebration. The friends knew it was the first flight to the area but never envisioned such a grand welcome.
"We are here to celebrate our 'big 0' birthdays, a women's week away from home," Broadstone said with a big smile on her face. "This is fabulous. They even rolled out the red carpet for us."
Passengers Randy and Deborah Bolt, and their son Chris, decided to hop the flight to Key West to see this week's powerboat races.
"This is great," Randy Bolt said. "When we left our house this morning in Maryland, it was 30 (degrees) and we were covered in frost."
For Horton, having Southwest land was another milestone for the airport.
"When low-cost airlines, like AirTran and Southwest come into an airport where there were previously no such airlines with low fares, it gets other airlines to follow suit," he said. "This is good because it means more passengers."
Shortly after Flight 2524 lifted off for Orlando and then back to its final destination, Columbus, a second Southwest flight landed with no fanfare.
"On Sundays, we have about 25 planes land and then turn around and leave," Horton said. "Today we had two Southwest flights on the schedule."
The airport will have two more such arrivals on Dec. 22. Delta will bring its first group of passengers from New York City and U.S. Express will have its maiden flight from Reagan Airport in Washington, D.C. Also, Southwest will soon be offering service to New Orleans.
Horton said the airport has seen a nearly 10 percent increase in passengers arriving at and departing from the airport over last year. It is a trend he believes will continue.
"We had an 18.4 percent increase during this September over September 2011," Horton said. "This airport has been on the rebound since 2010."
Within 30 minutes of the celebration, the passengers and luggage were on their way to hotels and other places in the Keys and Horton was heading home for the day.
"This is a great geographical location," he said. "It is a very hot destination, and by that I don't mean weatherwise. It is a popular place -- it's the 'American Caribbean.'