The $64 million answer

Here’s a good quiz question for you: What do Stuart Jet Center, in Stuart, Florida, Region Air in Sparta, Tennessee, and Missouri Aviation Center in Warrensburg, Missouri, have in common? They’re all running specials with discounts on fuel for pilots traveling to Sun ‘n Fun. That’s right, the reach of Sun ‘n Fun extends well outside the borders of Florida. Said another way, general aviation has a positive economic impact on North America that is absolutely undeniable. Better yet, it’s quantifiable — and that matters to all of us.

Sticking with the Sun ‘n Fun example, we can actually get down to real numbers and talk about how much that impact really affects the region. While having lunch with Lites Leenhouts last week, the president of Sun ‘n Fun, we had a great discussion while wrestling with tuna sandwiches the size of a small houseboat. Admittedly it was a little messy, but the discussion was even tastier than the lunch.

Lites is understandably excited to have in hand the latest economic impact report on Sun ‘n Fun, as reported by the University of South Florida. The magic number is $64 million. That’s serious money. When you factor in the short term nature of the event this impact results from, and the long range benefits that stretch out to places like Alabama, the Carolinas, and Missouri, (which I suspect aren’t even factored in to that figure) we’re talking about a staggering opportunity.

Take a look at the ever growing list of providers that participate in the annual Sun ‘n Fun migration. It just keeps getting longer, with FBOs reporting in from all over the map, right up through the start of the show. You can see the current list here.

Now consider that Sun ‘n Fun began as nothing more ambitious than a local fly-in hosted by an EAA chapter in Lakeland, Florida. Billy Henderson gets much of the credit for growing it into a powerhouse of an event, and he deserves it. But there are others who shouldered the burden too, others who will largely remain nameless other than to the volunteers and staff members who worked along side them all those years. Over a couple decades Sun ‘n Fun expanded from a thousand people or so, to a mammoth event that had the power to relocate aviation enthusiasts from snug homes as far away as Europe and Australia to the grassy infield of Lakeland Linder Regional Airport.

John Burton took the reins as president following Billy Henderson’s tenure. Under his leadership the fly-in became less home-style and more professional. That change in direction was bemoaned by some, and cheered by others. Frankly, neither camp is entirely right, and neither is entirely wrong, either. There’s probably room for both perspectives at the table, and in time I suspect that will come to pass. I foresee a meeting of the minds, if you will.

My expectation is that Sun ‘n Fun will continue to morph into another version of itself under the current president, Lites Leenhouts. Along the way I expect its economic muscles to grow, too. And that’s a good thing all around.

As an example of how much general aviation can impact our lives, let me use the example of my home airport, Winter Haven Municipal. Affectionately known as Gilbert Field by the locals, this non-towered airport that lies smack dab in the middle of the state is home to institutions like Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base and Legoland Florida, but is a relatively sleepy field for most of the year. Historically our FBO sold fuel and rented tie-downs during Sun ‘n Fun, but that’s it. No significant effort was ever made to expand on the opportunity the annual influx of transients brought us.

That’s all changed now, of course. Winter Haven will be offering fuel and tie-downs, as always. But aircraft parking will be valet style. Just de-plane at the FBO and the line crew will tug your aircraft to its tie-down spot for you. We allow and even encourage camping on the field now, and we’re offering a shower house to make the experience that much more enjoyable. The restaurant in the main FBO building is staying open late, and the city is joining forces with the FBO to offer little luxuries like charging stations for phones, laptops, and tablets.

You’ll not only be able to purchase your wristband for the big event, you’ll be able to rent a car right there at the FBO building, or jump on the round-trip shuttle bus that will take you right to Sun ‘n Fun and deliver you right back to the FBO again, too.

The point is that this general aviation event doesn’t just provide a financial boost to the area, it actually changed the behavior of airports and businesses in the region. The powerful draw of Sun ‘n Fun was in many ways the impetus that led to the creation of the Polk Aviation Alliance, a loose partnership between the municipally owned airports in the county, which includes representatives of management from Sun ‘n Fun and Fantasy of Flight, as well.

Every airport in the county has become aware of the potential benefit of throwing in and cooperating with the big dog to make general aviation as safe, attractive, and viable as it can be. Even airports outside the county, like Plant City and Zephyrhills Municipal, gear up to some degree, ready and willing to welcome anyone with a penchant for general aviation to the field.

Sonny Bono famously wrote “The Beat Goes On” — and he was right. It does, and thanks to the far reaching impact of this one event, we can all play a role in showing GA in the best light possible for one week a year. Then we can get to work helping our friends and neighbors back home see how we can maximize the benefit of general aviation in our own communities – all year long. So let’s get to it. Sun ‘n Fun 2012 is only five weeks away.

 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 You can reach him at



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  1. Kent Misegades says

    They can afford to discount, Jamie. Look at the prices they are charging for Avgas:

    Stuart Jet Center:  $6.82;   Fuel is only $5.05 at X58, 15 nm SW

    Region Air: $5.74 (SS); Fuel is only $4.93 at 0A3, 14 nm WSW

    Missouri Aviation Center is selling fuel at $4.99, good for them!

    One of the unspoken facts of many FBOs are the fat margins they make on 100LL, also one of the reasons they are opposed to any alternatives, eg autogas, 94UL, etc.    Let free markets reign, of course, but the many hurdles that airports create to protect FBOs make it hard for anyone to offer low-cost fuel.   This often comes with a requirement to offer a full range of services, fancy building, etc.  

    Watch also for city/county run airports that sell fuel at a loss to attract business, but have the luxury of being able to spread these losses over local taxpayers.

    Until our airports are cut loose from the government bureaucrats who own
    them, we’ll not see any real competition in price at most airports.  

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