Selling the best airport in the world

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. He is also a founding partner and regular contributor to FlightMonkeys.com.

As the introduction to this column stipulates, I’m a CFI and an A&P. But an increasingly larger portion of my workdays seem to be dominated by official duties that come with my newest title, city commissioner. And while I think an inordinate amount of that official time is spent at dinners or lunch meetings, there is a considerable amount of time I get to spend dealing with Gilbert Field in Winter Haven, Florida. As regular readers of this column know, I am not the least bit shy about referring to GIF as one darned fine piece of airport real estate, which just happens to be populated by the friendliest and most enjoyable collection of general aviation enthusiasts that I could possibly imagine.

Now, being a city commissioner in a city with an airport is a real treat for me. And I’m not just saying that because I’m an airplane nut who likes to hang around with people who enjoy telling or hearing a good aviation-oriented story. I’m also fond of the job because I get to climb up on my soapbox and tell the world what a fantastic destination Gilbert Field is. But I don’t stop there. You see, I’m not just spouting hyperbole. I actually believe what I say, and I’ll step up and defend my perspective with more enthusiasm than most 14-year-old girls can generate over the news that they’re getting a back-stage pass to a Justin Bieber concert. I actually live here because of Gilbert Field. My presence in the area isn’t accidental.

When given the opportunity I’ll transition at the drop of a hat from the serious instructor guy, or the pensive writer guy, into the unabashedly proud to be a Winter Haven city commissioner guy. And if you’re not careful I just might try to sell you on the idea of moving your general aviation operation to our airport — just like I did. An idea that honestly makes a lot of sense for a lot of companies, but not all of them. You have to pick and choose. And when you choose a company that you want to get involved with, you have to go after that opportunity with all the honesty, integrity, and creativity you can muster.

Let me give you an example. Until last Friday, I have been very quiet about the fact that Winter Haven has been one of the fortunate cities that has been talking to ICON Aircraft about basing their operations on our field. There are others, of course. I’m not delusional enough to think that we are the only option on the table. I’m sure each of those other cities have something of real merit to offer a company as innovative and adventurous as ICON is, too. But Winter Haven’s Gilbert Field is the place to be, and I’ve said as much to the site consultants, and ICON’s CEO, as well. I’m certainly not going to shirk from that same position just because the message is leaving the room and hitting the Internet.

Being quiet about the benefits of Gilbert Field is not in my nature. However, discretion comes easily to me. So it wasn’t until ICON gave me a green light and told me I was free to write about the search that I put fingertips to keyboard and spilled the beans. But let’s be clear – the story I’m telling you isn’t about ICON, or its A5 amphibian, or even about its stellar executive board (who I look forward to meeting in our next round of discussion). Nope, the story here is about how you and your airport administration should get up on your high horse and sing the praises of your airport as if it’s the best airport in the world.

Of course you have to sincerely believe the claim to be true, and you need to be able to back up that claim. But that’s where the picking and choosing comes in. Contrary to popular PC belief, being discriminating is not a negative – it’s a positive.

Consider this example: Lakeland Linder Regional Airport (LAL) is only 14 miles from Gilbert Field. Lakeland’s longest runway is nearly 3,500 feet longer than Gilbert Field’s longest runway. At 8,500 feet, Lakeland is the natural place to look when considering commercial jet service in Polk County. Winter Haven’s 5,005 foot runway is just too tight a squeeze for any serious contenders in that market.

So when Lakeland announced that it would be hosting direct flights to secondary markets all over the eastern United States and the islands, we were thrilled. Lakeland Linder is well suited for that service, and we’re not. So I have no problem standing up and applauding airport manager Gene Conrad and the leadership that is bringing B-737s filled with tourists to town. Good for them. Good for all of us.

ICON is another story, however. They are an excellent fit for Winter Haven. Why? Well for starters they’re building an amphibian and we have 38 lakes large enough for seaplane operations located within five miles of the airport. For another, Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base has made seaplane activity a normal part of daily life here. It is a rare day when you look up and don’t see a seaplane crossing the sky above Winter Haven.

So I stand up and sing the praises of Winter Haven to the ICON folks whenever they’re in town, and I mean it, too. I have a whole presentations worth of great reasons to base the manufacturing, marketing, sales, and training operations of a new and innovative amphibian right here on Gilbert Field.

But just as important as the relocation of ICON is to me, I will encourage you to identify the strengths of your field, and stand just as tall, speaking just as forcefully about the myriad advantages your field, and your town offer the aviation businesses that may come your way looking for a new home.

General aviation is a business. What’s more, it’s a service business for the most part – even the manufacturers have to translate their products into sales. You and your airport administration —  and your municipal government — can be and should be the best advocate your airport can buy. Because if you don’t really, truly believe that your airport is the best place in the world to base the right company’s business, why would they even think about it?

So go forth and sell yourselves, GA enthusiasts. The market is primed for growth and prosperity. Get in the game, do your best, and be proud of what the outcome of your work is. You will have earned it.

You can reach Jamie at Jamie@GeneralAviationNews.com

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