Key West Airport Goes Big Time

By @ 02/18/13 in Gay travel, Key West, Travel
A Cadillac being driven in the back of an Aerovias Q plane at the Key West International Airport C 1950s. From the Key West Art and Histoical Society Collection. Photo:

A Cadillac being driven in the back of an Aerovias Q plane at the Key West International Airport C 1950s. From the Key West Art and Histoical Society Collection.

As temps drop into the single digits in the Northeast, thoughts remain focused on warm-weather getaways. Many of our readers were inspired by our recent Key West coverage to plan trips to the gay ol’ Conch Republic and wonder what the best way is to get there.

One of our friends there, Phil Sheldon who owns HE Travel (Hanns Ebensten Travel & Alyson Adventures), Key West’s only storefront travel agency, offered this overview of the airport which has gone from a sleepy air strip serving tiny planes to today’s modern facility which welcomes small jets. He also provides handy pros and cons for the major airlines serving EYW.

Over the past decade, Key West International Airport has seen an amazing transformation of its aircraft, and of the destinations to which one can fly from here. Many of us will remember that in the late 90s the biggest plane coming to Key West was American Eagle’s 30-seat Saab 340 prop plane from Miami. Now that same aircraft is flown by United’s partner Silver, and is one of the smallest aircraft that flies into KWIA.

Here’s a summary of the commercial airlines currently operating flights at Key West International Airport, based on observations over a period of time.

  • Delta: they have the largest operation here today, with three or four flights a day between Key West and Atlanta. Most flights are on Boeing 737 aircraft, the ideal full-sized aircraft for short-runway operations. All flights now offer both First Class and upgraded Economy Comfort seats.
    • Pro: Through their Atlanta hub, Delta offers the most single-change-of-plane connections throughout the US and around the world
    • Con: When strong cold fronts bring northerly winds to the island, these larger aircraft are at higher risk of being diverted or having flights canceled altogether due to our short and narrow runway
    • Useful to know: Because KWIA has the shortest runway in the entire Delta system, fliers are limited to one checked bag per person, even if you’re willing to pay for a second checked bag. For carry-on bags, it’s the same policy as other airlines – one carry-on bag and one personal item such as a purse or lap-top.
    • Coming soon: Delta has announced a handful of Saturday round-trips non-stop between New York’s LaGuardia Airport and Key West this winter; if these sell well, we may get ongoing non-stop flights to New York!
  • American: the big news with American Eagle is that in November 2012 they sold off the last ATR prop plane, replacing them with 50-seat jets. They’ve gone from 5 ATR flights a day to 6 jets a day, but because the jets are a third smaller, there are actually fewer seats between Miami and Key West than there were previously.
    • Pro: American offers good connections from Miami to their domestic and international route system. For anyone traveling to the Caribbean, Central America or South America, this offers the shortest travel time, and usually the best prices.
    • Con: with fewer seats, there are likely to be more peak season dates when flights are either sold out or have only expensive seats.
    • Useful to know: OK Key West insiders, our little secret that the ATR door was in the back no longer applies. The jet boarding door is in the front left corner of the aircraft, where most people expect it.
    • Useful to know: American Eagle does not yet offer First Class on this route, but they charge extra for the first few rows. However the galley is in the front of the plane, and overhead storage is only on the right side, so overhead space is very limited in the front of the plane. To offset this, you can gate check your larger carry-on and just take items onboard that you can put under the seat in front of you.
  • Southwest: in November they replaced AirTran for flights between Key West and Tampa and Orlando. Unlike AirTran that had a First Class section, Southwest has only Economy Class seats.
    • Pro: Their on-time performance is excellent. Because their flight routes are much shorter than Delta’s they have more flexibility for safe flying when weather conditions are less than ideal.
    • Con: Southwest only has two mid-day flights each day, so there are fewer connections available compared with other carriers.
    • Con: unlike the other carriers at KWIA Southwest will rarely route you on another carrier if there are any problems, so if your flight is canceled, you may be stuck until a Southwest seat opens up.
    • Useful to know: Southwest flights are always open seating, but you can pay a little extra when you reserve your ticket to board in an early boarding group.
    • Coming soon: Southwest will add a daily New Orleans-Key West flight in March; if this flight is successful, we may see new flights to other key Southwest cities such as Fort Lauderdale, Houston or Dallas.
  • United / Silver: this is the only remaining prop plane service to KWIA flown by a major carrier. They offer a few flights each day to Fort Lauderdale and Tampa using their traditional 19-seat Beechcraft aircraft, and 29-seat Saab-340 aircraft.
    • Pro: Silver offers flights throughout the day connecting to United hubs at Newark, Chicago and Houston.
    • Con: The Saab-340s have comfortable seats and large legroom for a prop plane, but are old enough that their flights are frequently seriously delayed or canceled for maintenance.
    • Useful to know: Silver is owned by new investors, so it will be interesting to see if they add larger aircraft or new destinations, so they are now the little guy among major carriers at KWIA.
  • US Airways: they provide between one and four flights a day to their Charlotte hub on comfortable 70-seat Embraer jets from Brazil.
    • Pro: Charlotte is perhaps the easiest large hub airport to transit, and flights are largely on time (they sport rocking chairs, mood lighting, free Wi-Fi and often even a live pianist, so connections can be fun!)
    • Con: for some reason US Airways continues to suspend operations in Key West between May and October, then slowly ramps up for season.
    • Useful to know: US Airways has announced several Saturday-only non-stop flights between their Washington Reagan National hub and Key West during season. Let’s hope this leads to more non-stops to Washington!
  • CapeAir: they offer several flights a day to Fort Myers on 9-seat aircraft
    • Pro: their commuter gate at Fort Myers is near JetBlue, and they offer code-sharing with JetBlue and some other carriers
    • Con: with just one route and tiny planes, it’s hard to catch up if anything goes wrong
    • Useful to know: there is only one pilot on these flights, so the “co-pilot” seat is available for a passenger, and you can get really cool views; however, legroom can be tight there.
    • Useful to know: there is minimal room inside the aircraft to store things so all carry-on bags, including laptops, are stowed inside the wing just before you climb into the plane.
  • Cuba: One final note is that we are often asked whether there are direct flights between Key West and Cuba.
    • At this time, the airport is preparing Customs facilities as a condition of being able to accept flights from Cuba, but this has not yet been completed.
    • Some of our KWIA-based seaplane and small-plane charter companies are considering applying for a license to offer flights to Cuba from Key West, but as far as we know, none have licenses at this time.
    • For now, anyone wanting to visit Cuba will still need to join a licensed humanitarian, cultural, sports or educational group. Please contact us if you’d like recommendations for a licensed visit to Cuba.

HE Travel (Hanns Ebensten Travel & Alyson Adventures) is Key West’s only storefront travel agency. Our experienced travel consultants would be happy to help you with traditional travel needs such as flights, hotels and cruises. And if there’s any problem, you have a local team to help you get where you need to be!

 In addition, since we also operate over 40 group tours around the world each year, we can work with our vast network of worldwide partners to customize just the right trip for you, and make sure it runs smoothly. We are known for being the original gay tour company, dating back to 1973, but today we also offer many all-welcome tours to very special places such as an intimate barge tour in France and a private villa in Italy.

We’re located upstairs in a 2-story pink building at the back of the Simonton Street city parking lot, just off Angela. (For long-time residents, it’s upstairs on the site of the old Copa club.) Please feel free to call us at 305-294-8174 or send an email to Phil Sheldon at 

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