Winter Haven’s Gilbert Field (GIF) is located in the heart of central Florida. This part of the world is bathed in sunshine and warmth, and dotted with dozens of lakes custom made for fishing, boating, skiing, and seaplane flying. But there is another geographical benefit that has been lost on the administrators of this outstanding uncontrolled field for 36 years: Sun ‘n Fun is located a mere 14 miles to the west.
This massive, week-long gathering of aviation aficionados has historically been the busiest week of the year at Winter Haven’s airport, too. Yet somehow, the management of Winter Haven’s Gilbert Field mistook the influx of visitors from the north and west as a welcome, yet random, bit of good luck. It is only now, with undeniably aviation friendly oversight, that the city has taken a second look at what opportunity truly looks like – and they are taking action.
Part of the problem was that it’s not always obvious that a service industry business requires a strong dedication to customer service skills to turn opportunity into success. Another aspect of that historical myopia was the fact that nobody involved in the management of the airport had any background in aviation – or any interest in gaining any experience in the field.
Turning a deaf ear and a blind eye to your customers can get expensive.
Fortunately, all that has changed now. And it has all changed due to a simple attitude adjustment. At Gilbert Field the management has now recognized that safety is the primary objective. Following closely behind is the need to provide exemplary customer service to all our customers, local and transient.
Gilbert Field will embrace the family friendly aspect of GA and allow camping on the field for the first time this year. Extended hours at the FBO and the airport restaurant will be augmented by additional police patrols to enhance safety and security for our guests.
There is real excitement on the field for the first time in years. Winter Haven is readying itself to welcome a stream of GA guests with open arms and wide smiles. And it all happened because the airport users recognized that their problems — and the solutions to those problems — involved a change in the political makeup at city hall. Their involvement in the electoral process has benefited them directly, and is about to impact general aviation in a beneficial way, too.
The irony may be that it is not at all unusual for municipally owned airports to degenerate into undeniably unaviation friendly environments over time. Without a management structure that’s dedicated to success, an engaged community of users and tenants, and the willingness to take a risk now and then, success is almost impossible in any industry. The airport is no different.
And although not all airports are situated in close proximity to an event of the size and scope of Sun ‘n Fun, all airports have some opportunity that they can make the most of if they can identify it and seize the day.
Tomorrow is looking better all the time…
Jamie Beckett is a CFI and A&P mechanic who stepped into the political arena in an effort to promote and protect GA at his local airport. You can reach him at Jamie@GeneralAviationNews.com.