The Lakeland City Commission Monday unanimously agreed to renew its contract with a company that specializes in bringing air passenger service to mid-sized airports despite failing to do so since it was hired by the city in 2018. But things are looking up — literally — for Lakeland’s decade-long quest to restore passenger airline service at city-owned Lakeland Linder International Airport.
The commission agreed to pay Indiana-based Volaire Aviation Inc. $37,500 through next September for “air service development” at the airport. Half — $18,750 — will be paid by Polk County Tourism & Sports Marketing.
Realigning with Voltaire is the “absolute best opportunity for us to continue the momentum that is in place” now at the airport, Mayor Bill Mutz said.
That momentum, according to City Manager Shawn Sherrouse, is a non-disclosure agreement signed by airport Interim Director Kris Hallstrand with an unnamed airline regarding negotiations to bring passenger service to Lakeland.
“We are engaged in some conversations. There is a renewed interest in some airlines who are expanding,” he said. “Lakeland could certainly become part of their market. Much of this is being driven by the active conversations; we have truly viable options.”
Volaire, which has 75 clients nationwide, can earn a $50,000 bonus for each passenger airline that begins service before the contract expires in September. The agreement can be extended for two additional years.
Hallstrand did not name the airline nor did she elaborate on the “ongoing negotiations” but said retaining Volaire would be a key asset in securing passenger service.
Volaire “did all the studies to see where the hitch was, who is using what airlines to fly to what destinations,” Hallstrand said. “They did all the legwork in this contract, which is substantially more money than this contract. We are working off that background moving forward.”
Sherrouse and Hallstrand said Volaire’s efforts were derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 and subsequent upheaval in the airline industry.
At least five commuter air services have operated out of Linder for varied stints over the years but none since South Carolina-based Direct Air left in 2012
Among purported deals being negotiated before the pandemic struck was a pact with American Airlines for two to three flights a day from Lakeland to Charlotte, N.C.
Commissioner Sara Roberts McCarley called the “resurgence of interest” in establishing airline service “exciting” while Commissioner Chad McLeod noted airline passenger service is among questions most often asked by constituents.
Mutz tempered expectations, noting one deal often leads to another.
“This will be probably not as robust as we hoped for initially but provide some of the shoehorning for future opportunities,” he said.
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