Bringing out the big guns — with a smile

In North Platte, Nebraska, they celebrate NEBRASKAland Days in June. Driggs, Idaho, pulls out all the stops for Summerfest in July. In Johnstown, Pennsylvania, they mark the joys of summer with Thunder in the Valley, and Salley, South Carolina, hosts the Chitlin Strut in November.

The point is this: Regardless of where you live, there is a festival, a carnival, a fair, or a public gathering of some sort that draws a crowd. That explosion of people represents an opportunity for those who know how to make the most of it. For those who don’t, it’s nothing but a traffic jam, a long line at the grocery store, or a headache that they wish they could avoid. Pity those people. They just don’t know a good thing when they see it.

You can count my hometown of Winter Haven, Florida, in that myopic group. Or at least you could in the old days. And by, “old days” I mean last year and every year leading up to it.

You see, the people who make decisions in my city were as blind as anyone else when it came to maximizing the potential of an opportunity. Because we have an airport and happen to be located only 14 miles from the VOR at Lakeland Linder Regional Airport (LAL), we have enjoyed an influx of transient traffic every year when Sun ’n Fun rolls around. It was the biggest week of our year, and it has been for the past 30 years – but it’s not like anyone at the airport ever took it upon themselves to offer an enthusiastic “Thank you,” to all those out of town guests. It apparently never occurred to anyone to see if we could step up our game a little bit and by doing so get an even bigger bang out of the south’s biggest aviation event. We just took them as they came, accepted any money that happened to pass from their hand into ours, and left it at that.

That’s just dumb times 30. So perhaps you can understand why I’m so overjoyed to report that the era of “Oh well, who cares?” is over. There’s a new airport director in town, and she’s got a thing or two going for her this year — not the least of which is an unerring ability to read the writing on the wall, and the get-up-and-go to do something about it.

Her name is Debbie Murphy, and she’s truly our not-so-secret weapon here in Winter Haven.

Having a person with real leadership ability in a position of authority can do wonders. And our Debbie is making things happen, let me tell you. She’s recognized that although we have a large number of aircraft fly in for Sun ’n Fun every year, we have room for a whole lot more. So she’s throwing the doors open wide and is going out of her way to welcome Sun ’n Fun visitors to good ‘ol Winter Haven Municipal Airport at Gilbert Field with a big smile and a revamped amenities list.

Service is what it’s all about. That message was missed for too long. Finally we have a manager on the field who recognizes that airport management is a customer service industry. It’s that realization that is turning things around for us here.

She’s been working with the FBO to make sure a smooth, workable plan is in place to handle traffic coming in, going out, and staying overnight. She’s ramping up the shuttle bus service from the FBO to Sun ’n Fun and back again that will allow visitors to buy their passes at our FBO, ride the shuttle right onto the Sun ’n Fun grounds where they’ll be dropped off inside the fence, and then get picked up again for the ride back to Gilbert Field when their day is done. She’s even making sure the restaurant on the field is going to extend its hours so they can feed hungry travelers from the early morning well into the evening.

Add to all that a camping plan that will let folks stay right onsite for a bargain basement rate of $15 a night, a shower house so they can clean up at, and a modern, brightly lit FBO that will be open in inclement weather so campers can get out of the rain should a shower pop up in the night — and we’re talking about a level of customer service heretofore unseen in these parts.

And why not? If airport management is a service industry – and it most certainly is – then why not provide the best service you can? Our airport manager has done what none before her has done. She’s got the administration, the FBO, and the restaurant all working together to provide an exceptional experience to transients and locals alike, and she’s working her tail off to make sure the biggest week of our year comes off without a hitch.

You have to respect dedication like that. And whether it’s Sun ’n Fun, NEBRASKAland Days, Summerfest, Thunder in the Valley, or the Chitlin Strut, every community in America has something to be proud of. If you search the calendar you’ll find there’s something coming at you this year that gives your airport a real reason to get spruced up, put on your best smile, and welcome every guest that walks across your ramp like you’ve been waiting for them all year long.

You might have to start small, but out of small opportunities big successes come. So get started. Smile big, cheer loud, and welcome a new age of exceptional customer service to your airport. Your customers will appreciate it, you can be sure.

It’s time to get in gear and make things happen. You can do it. You really can.


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 also is an owner and contributor to You can reach Jamie at



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