Although most Lakelanders have little day-to-day contact with the city’s airport, officials say Lakeland Linder International Airport has a $284 million economic impact on the community, including being home to 45 businesses with 1,500 employees.

Basically, the airport is set up to support the business community and general aviation, but there is a whole lot more happening, said Eugene Conrad III, airport director.

For example:

  • Nine aviation educational facilities opened at the airport in the last eight years.
  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration moved its vital Hurricane Hunters unit there in 2016.
  • Military contractor Draken International, which has a fleet of more than 120 former military jets it hires out for training, is adding 37,000 square feet onto its 100,000-square-foot headquarters facility.
Gene Conrad

Because Lakeland Linder has been growing faster than expected, the Federal Aviation Administration asked that its master plan, last updated in 2011, be updated earlier than the expected 10-year cycle, Conrad said.

Airport staff, with help from consultant Atkins Global and input from a technical advisory committee, is well into the 18-month, $700,000 process and expects to wrap up the project in the spring.

The airport recently had a name change, going from Lakeland Linder Regional Airport to Lakeland Linder International Airport. The city-owned airport, tucked away five miles southwest of downtown, was allowed the more impressive moniker after U.S. Customs and Border Protection opened an office at the airport in 2017.

Conrad said the airport is the 19th busiest in Florida and the 115th busiest in the nation. And for five days each spring, the Sun ‘n Fun Fly-In turns the 1,710-acre property into the busiest airport in the world with more than 8,000 take-offs and landings.

In addition to expected growth in cargo and general aviation, the airport is focused on establishing regularly scheduled commercial passenger air service connecting Lakeland with major airline hubs, he said.

City Commissioner Scott Franklin, the only pilot on the seven-member Lakeland City Commission, which oversees the airport, said, “I can’t say enough about Gene Conrad’s leadership. He and his staff have already completed (or soon will complete) all the items on the last master plan — many years in advance of the targeted dates.”

Jobs magnet

Franklin, a first-term city commissioner and a 30-year pilot, described the airport as a “platform to attract and retain talent with high-skilled/high wage jobs.“

“Aviation and aerospace jobs pay significantly higher than Lakeland’s median income, and we’re building out a job-creating machine” at the airport, Franklin said. “We are creating pilots, technicians and aviation support staff at a level unmatched anywhere in the country — maybe even the world — and the momentum continues to build.”

| Marilyn Meyer | LkldNow

| Marilyn Meyer | LkldNow

Central Florida Aerospace Academy for high school students, along with Polk State College’s aerospace program offering associate and bachelor’s degrees, are providing start-to-finish platforms for aviation and jobs, Franklin said.

Other aviation educational facilities at the airport include Traviss Technical College’s mechanic programs, a high school flight club, four established flight schools and a fifth flight school that is relocating.

For 16-year-old Sean Stoltz, a student at Central Florida Air Academy and member of the flight club, the opportunity to get his pilot’s license while attending high school has been a dream come true.

“You have to be 17 to get your pilot’s license and I will get my license on Nov. 17, the day after my 17th birthday,” Stoltz said. “I soloed on my 16th birthday, before I even got my drivers license.”

Keeping up

While the majority of businesses that lease space at the airport are directly related to flight and aircraft maintenance, about 20 non-aviation businesses also are located there, including two hotels, an environmental engineering office, PODS storage and a custom truck shop. From a business recruitment perspective, it helps that the airport is within Tampa’s free-trade zone.

“We have over 1 million square feet of facilities and we are 100 percent occupied,” Conrad said.

| Marilyn Meyer | LkldNow

With such a massive operation, the airport has a constant need for upkeep, repairs and preparing for future growth.

In the past month alone, the Lakeland City Commission – which must approve purchases above $50,000 – has acted on four expansion projects already under way:

  • Approved a construction contract that is part of a $13 million intermodal project to improve 40 acres on the northwest side of of the airport to attract jet cargo facilities and more. businesses that maintain, repair and overhaul large jets.
  • Approved a contract moving forward a multi-year $1 million project to build more T hangars for small general aviation aircraft.
  • Approved a contract for rehabilitating Taxiway H, now classified in poor condition. The taxiway is near the general aviation T-hangars.
  • Approved rehabilitating and expanding the southeast apron, which provides access for flight schools and would permit further growth in that area of the airport.

Most of the funding for the projects comes from the Federal Aviation Administration with small percentage matches from the Florida Department of Transportation and the city’s airport enterprise fund. For some projects, matching funds also come from Polk County or local and regional economic development agencies.

Overall, the airport is a revenue-producer for the city, Franklin said. “Most cities have to subsidize their airports just to keep them as an ‘amenity.’ Ours is already in the black (current profits are being reinvested) and is being positioned to become a real revenue generator.”

Airport capacity

With two long asphalt runways (8,499 and 5,005 linear feet by 150 feet wide) and a 2,205-foot-long turf runway, Lakeland Linder can accommodate most any aircraft, including two DC-10s based there, the military jets used by Draken and passenger jets brought in for maintenance and overhaul at local businesses.

But, Conrad said, there is demand for more general aviation capacity and for more services for larger craft. Providing that will require upgrades to the airport’s system of taxiways and aprons, which currently has sections rated from poor to fair to good quality.

The airport is home to 247 larger aircraft and expects that number to grow to 390 during the next 20 years, Conrad said.

In addition to the major project developing facilities for future cargo jet service and more jet refurbishment and overhaul service, the airport is making plans to accommodate more business-size jets, prop jets and cabin-class craft, Conrad said.

“We get calls all the time from businesses and people wanting to base their Beechcraft King Air jets here but we don’t have space available,” Conrad said. “These people may live locally or they may be want to base somewhere they don’t have to deal with the congestion of the Tampa or Orlando airports”, he said.

Passenger service

Located near two tourist magnets – 39 driving miles from Tampa International Airport and 62 miles from Orlando International Airport – Lakeland Linder is classified as one of the nation’s 65 reliever airports.

As such, it provides local-market service for general aviation and is available for “future excess commercial demand.” Both the Tampa and Orlando airports are unable to increase overall capacity, which provides an opportunity for Lakeland, according to the working documents in Lakeland’s master plan update.

If Lakeland Linder is able to pull it together, part of that relief would be providing Lakeland’s first-ever, regularly-scheduled commercial passenger service to a major hub, such as to Delta Airline’s hub in Atlanta or American Airline’s hub in Charlotte.

“All the variables are in our favor now: the price of fuel, the business climate and the need,” Conrad said.

Lakeland Linder’s terminal is already set up with little-used amenities: parking for 700, gates, baggage claim and vehicle rental services because of past contracts with charter airlines; most of those were short-lived endeavors although Legacy Flights is currently offering weekend service to Key West.

To push the plan, this summer the city enlisted the help of consultant Volaire Aviation of Indianapolis.

Now the city working on a financial device to help airline companies’ overcome their wariness about the risk of setting up service in a community without proof that passenger service would be sustainable. The city is enlisting the community’s support to accumulate a $4 million to $5 million fund that would act as an escrow account to cover losses for the first two years, Conrad said.

“If one quarter the airline had a $45,000 loss, it would get a check from the fund to cover the loss but if the next quarter it had a $100,000 profit it would draw nothing from the fund,” Conrad said. “Of course, our goal is that that the airline would never have to draw anything from the fund and the money could be returned to the contributors.”

The Federal Aviation Administration has nixed the city using its airport enterprise fund to contribute to the escrow account, so city officials have been discussing putting up $750,000 to $1 million from the general fund, Conrad said. And the Polk Tourism Development Council is considering matching that amount from the county’s bedroom tax funds, he said. The rest of the money would come from federal grants, economic development agencies and business partners, Conrad said.

Franklin said that “potentially attracting a major air carrier service will be a huge convenience to our citizens who are fighting ever more difficult challenges flying in an out of Tampa or Orlando. Inbound travelers (including tourists vacationing in Florida and business travelers meeting with local businesses) will boost our revenues with bed taxes, rental car taxes, restaurant and retail spending.”

Conrad said that passengers’ ticket prices likely would not compete with cheap economy fares at the of Orlando and Tampa airports; however flights out of Lakeland would provide convenience for business travelers and give leisure passengers an opportunity to avoid the frenetic pace, traffic, and parking fees at the larger airports.

Describing Lakeland Linder as one of the city’s crown jewels, Franklin said, “We are on the cusp of seeing the remaining pieces fall into place that will make all our citizens really come to understand and appreciate what it does for our community.”

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2 Comments

  1. I have constantly been amazed how small the City of Lakeland still “thinks” when it comes to air service. Forty years ago I made an attempt at creating an airline based in Lakeland. I was successful to a degree, but other factors derailed those efforts. The dynamic has changed dramatically since. I have always believed that if properly thought out and implemented with the proper aircraft and route structure, Lakeland could and can still be a successful venture. Back then, the population base and economic factors called for both an intrastate and interstate route structure, the later being at the time to Atlanta. Given the advent of different aircraft which can be tailored to specific markets, the necessity of connecting to Atlanta no longer exists. The economic upsurge, especially at the airport both current and future suggest thinking bigger. Does it make sense to pay a premium fare by connecting in Atlanta to connect to a flight to Chicago, Washington or New York, when you can fly direct to those cities without the hassle of making a connecting flight on an airline which serves their needs/desires rather than yours? If you are going to offer a subsidy to cover losses, why not offer a subsidy to cover losses, initially on service which has value? Lakeland is a stubborn city when it comes to “new” things, it always has been. There is an old saying, if you can last a year, then Lakeland will accept you. In the old days, if you mentioned the airport, few knew where it was or that we had one. Mention it again and the answer would be, “Oh you mean Piper!”. Yes, things have changed. It’s obvious someone thinks Lakeland has more value than most. Central location, great if there is a hurricane somewhere, as a staging area. Lakeland is and always has been a diamond in the rough. Few know that Eastern Airlines seriously considered Lakeland as the gateway airport to Disney World when Eastern became the official airline of Disney. The drive time was closer than MCO. Disney is still there and Polk Parkway is now there and I-4 has been widened.

    Anyway, just my two cents worth.

  2. Great Post! You got that right especially:

    “Lakeland is a stubborn city when it comes to “new” things, it always has been.”

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