By Dakota Parks for Visit Florida
Located just 20 minutes from the sugar-white sands of Panama City Beach, the Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport (ECP), is one of the newest airports in the United States, opened in 2010. With nonstop flights to 13 major cities on American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Southwest Airlines, and United Airlines, ECP is dedicated to making travel easier and more accessible to the more than 1.5 million passengers that pass through its doors each year.
“Airport accessibility is crucial,” Airport Executive Director Parker W. McClellan said. “We need to be accessible to all passengers that fly, and it’s important that we do everything we can to ease the stress of travel. In doing so, we have created a pet relief area for service animals. We have a large number of wheelchairs available for use, and we have a dedicated wheelchair lane at the TSA to allow those passengers more time and patience.”
Historically, the airport has worked with ADA consultants when designing their service animal relief area, and as the Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport approaches its latest expansion project, accessibility is at the top of mind. The project includes creating additional overflow parking, expanding the baggage area and north terminal, adding restrooms and concessions as well as plans for a sensory room.
“As we move into the design of the new facility, we have a keen awareness for the diversity of our passengers, and we have plans for an additional pet relief area and a sensory room,” McClellan said. “We know that different passengers have different needs, and sometimes the sounds and lights can be overwhelming, so the sensory room will be a quiet place to recharge and relax. Traveling can be a difficult and challenging experience, and we want to make it a pleasant experience for everyone.”
ECP is also dedicated to making information accessible for all by providing a landing page on their website for the airport’s accessible amenities as well as constantly monitoring their website with an accessible consulting company to ensure their website is easily navigated and accessible for all visitors.
The first step in planning a trip through ECP will start with contacting the airline directly during booking to request accommodations. Guests should call or email the airline directly or fill out the designated section during booking to request assistance such as in-flight assistance, wheelchair assistance or an escort from curbside check-in to the gates (and vice-versa).
Passengers who need immediate assistance at the airport should look for helpers at the curb. If they do not see anyone around to ask for help, they may call ECP airport police at (850) 769-6033, who will phone for wheelchair or curbside assistance.
Travelers with disabilities can also request a private screening through the TSA checkpoint by contacting TSA Cares at least 72 hours in advance if possible.
For travelers flying with service animals, many airlines now require guests to complete a DOT Service Animal Air Transportation Form and a Service Animal Relief Attestation Form at least 48 hours prior to departure.
Navigating The Airport
ECP has an easy to navigate design with the ticketing area, baggage claim, military welcome center, TSA and ground transportation located on the first level. The airport terminal is located on the second level with elevators and escalators located by gate 1. ECP is wheelchair accessible throughout the terminal, and the ticket counters, baggage claim, and security checkpoints provide plenty of space to accommodate travelers with special needs.
Bathrooms, gift shops and restaurants are located on both the first floor and between the terminal gates, and a private mother’s room with a diaper changing station and lounge for nursing is located near gates 6 and 7. Passengers can gain access to the mother’s room by calling (850) 769‑6033 and asking for “Access to the Mother’s Room.”
ECP has many accessible amenities to make traveling through the airport a smooth experience for all of its guests, starting with designated disabled parking areas in the short-term and long-term parking lots as well as free parking for 100% disabled veterans with a veteran’s ID or disabled veteran license plate. The airport also offers complimentary parking lot attendants for those who need a ride to and from the parking lots. If you don’t see an attendant, you can call 850-636-8971.
Additionally, guests who have their vehicle retrofitted to meet the needs of their disability, such as hand controls or a wheelchair lift, can park for free in any ECP lot. These guests should call Republic Parking at 850-636-8971 to arrange for validation or have the toll booth operator validate their parking ticket on their way out.
SERVICE ANIMALS: ECP offers an ADA-accessible service animal relief area located outside the terminal building on the north end near ground transportation. This area provides a fenced-in enclosure, waste disposal unit, fire hydrant, automatic water dish, and a bench for sitting.
MILITARY WELCOME CENTER:
Located on the first floor, the newly-renovated military welcome center offers a quiet place for active duty, retired military personnel and Department of Defense employees to relax while waiting for a flight or a ride home. Open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., the center offers snacks, drinks, television, Wi-Fi, and a children’s play area.
VISION OR HEARING IMPAIRMENT: To help travelers navigate the airport easily, ECP utilizes both audio and visual paging as well as announcing the time every 30 minutes. Vision-impaired travelers who need special assistance should let their airline know to have a sighted guide at the gate or curbside to help them get where they need to go.
TRANSPORTATION: Most of the 7 rental car companies that operate at ECP offer vehicles equipped with hand controls and adaptive driving devices with advance notice. Guests looking to rent a wheelchair accessible van for their trip can contact Team Adaptive Medical or browse Wheelchair Getaways.
For passengers planning to visit Panama City, there are several wheelchair accessible attractions around the city, including mobi-mat beach entrances and beach wheelchair rentals, as well as accessible activities, dining, and lodging.