Bring in the dignitaries

Last Thursday I spent a good portion of the afternoon at Lakeland Linder Airport (LAL)  in Lakeland, Florida. Many GAN readers have visited Lakeland at some point, I’m sure. This is the site of Sun n’ Fun, the second largest aviation gathering in North America.

For almost 40 years the general aviation community has been flocking to Lakeland in droves, from all points on the globe. We sit in the grass and crane our necks to see what Patty Wagstaff and Sean Tucker might be doing up there this year. We sit in airplanes and think seriously about how we might swing the purchase of our dreams, and sell it to our significant other when we get home.

What we rarely see at Sun ‘n Fun is non-aviation dignitaries. But I saw them last Thursday. The mayor, the city manager, members of the city commission, representatives of various Polk County agencies, all gathered at the terminal to await the arrival of a B-737 that would represent the first regularly scheduled passenger flight from Direct Air, a regional carrier that specializes in secondary markets.

Lakeland is definitely a secondary market to either Orlando or Tampa. That’s not an insult either. Secondary markets offer quicker service, shorter lines, often lower prices, and most – if not all — the amenities of the larger airports hiding within the Class B veil.

Lakeland lies within Class D airspace. Instead of a jetway, passengers board and deplane by way of a stairway, albeit a covered stairway that offers significant protection from the occasional passing rain shower. The trip from the airplane to the parking lot is less than a minute in duration, for those traveling with carry-on luggage only. There’s no elevator, escalator, or people mover required. The trip isn’t a whole lot longer for those who checked their bags. With only two gates to choose from there isn’t much chance for passengers to get lost, or confused, or stand in front of the wrong baggage carousel for half an hour before they realize their mistake.

In short, secondary markets offer a pleasant mode of transportation that is, for many of us, a throwback to earlier times when air travel was exciting, and friendly, and fun.

So perhaps it comes as something of a surprise to see the line of dignitaries who showed up to welcome the inaugural flight of Direct Air to Lakeland. A destination that I might add has gone from being the newest addition to the Direct Air lineup, to their most popular destination, in only three short weeks of taking bookings.

Don’t blame the dignitaries. Cheer them on. They’re doing their level best to be supportive of aviation when they see it in a form that they understand. They all travel by air from time to time – but the airplanes they travel on have two or more turbine engines, flight attendants, and multiple classes of seating.

They aren’t being arbitrary in their support. This is aviation as they know it, and they’re pulling out all the stops to show how pleased they are to have the big boys coming to town.

This is an opportunity for those of us who fly the smaller stuff. We GA pilots and enthusiasts know something the dignitaries don’t know, but we can educate them if we choose to. For every B-737 that arrives at an airport like Lakeland, many dozens of smaller GA airplanes will take off and land. Most will be local, but many will come from other parts of the state or the country. Some are tourists, while others are flying for business.

Aviation is aviation is aviation. The airport that provides a place for the airliner to set down, provides daily (and nightly) opportunities for a slew of other airplanes to fly in and tie down, too. Those GA pilots and passengers stay in hotels, eat in restaurants, shop in stores, rent cars, and provide economic fuel to the community, too. We are a force to be reckoned with. So stand tall, speak your piece, and make your position on airports, aviation, and general aviation known when the opportunity presents itself. It might make a difference one day.

On Thursday evening as the fully dignified crew sat down for dinner, I thought it was at least possible that I was the only pilot in the room. But I was wrong. As the introductions were being made and the welcome speeches were being offered up, a prominent member of the county contingent stood up and prefaced his comments by saying, “I’m a pilot.”

I didn’t know that. I’m not sure the rest of the dignitaries in the room did either. But they do now. And now I know about one more openly pro-aviation person who’s part of the political mix in these parts. Who knows what benefits that little tidbit of knowledge will bring down the road? It will mean something someday, though. I’m sure of that. And all because I spent the afternoon waiting for an airplane to arrive at a secondary market airport.

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. You can reach him at Jamie@GeneralAviationNews.com.

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