Last June I wrote a piece about an airline that had begun service into Lakeland Linder Regional Airport (LAL) here in central Florida. The column ran in this space. It was ebullient, hopeful, and waved a big flashy flag for the potential that comes from having regularly scheduled air service into a mid-sized and growing city. Everything I said there is still true, too. Well, almost everything. The airline unexpectedly suspended operations this week, leaving untold numbers of passengers stranded in far off locations. Other than that…
The airline business cannot be described as stable, predictable, or thriving. It’s important to each and every one of us, however. Travel by air is a resource like no other and so we have to sit up and take notice when the bottom drops out, as it did in Lakeland, and so many other cities served by this small carrier.
The reality is that every form of aviation exists in a symbiotic relationship between the public and private sides of the U.S. economy. Whether military, commercial, or general aviation is involved, there is a public component to the day-to-day operations. Somewhere along the way a tax dollar is being expended to operate or maintain the fields those aircraft operate out of, to maintain the aircraft themselves, or pay the crews that operate and support them. That’s to say nothing of the ATC, administrative, and security staff involved in aviation nationwide.
Of course while the public side is unavoidable and undeniably important to the operations of aircraft, the private side is every bit as indispensable. In fact, the private side is where most of the promotion for aviation goes on. It’s seen most commonly in people just like you and me. Folks who love aviation and talk about it to our family and friends. Willingly or unwillingly, we become the spokesmen for the industry, even though most of us have only a very limited perspective on the industry as a whole.
So it’s not much of a stretch of the imagination to believe that many thousands of casual bystanders are asking their aviation-oriented friends and co-workers this week, “What happened?”
I’ll tell you the truth — I don’t know. Perhaps nobody knows for sure. But this is not an isolated incident by any means. In my lifetime I have seen giants disappear. Pan American, Eastern, Trans World Airlines, National, Braniff, Northwest, all carried passengers in massive numbers. And they all went the way of the Studebaker, Nash, and Oldsmobile. They’re gone.
Times change. That’s a sometimes unpleasant reality we have to to live with, even if we’re stuck in Buffalo, Pittsburgh, or Lakeland and want to get home more than anything.
Initial indications are that a fuel crisis developed for the airline. If we were to read between the lines, that might equate to a cash flow problem. Then again, is there anyone in America who hasn’t noticed a considerable dent in their checkbook balance as they depart the local filling station? The last time fuel prices rose as high as they are now, the airlines began to squeal and squirm about the cost of filling the tanks. Who could blame them? It’s not like they’re charging us $1,000 to get from one time zone to the next in less time than it takes to see a movie. Nope, they’re all lowballing the cost of a ticket to get the short-term riders, at the cost of their long-term solvency. They’ve been persisting in this practice for years, too.
In the coming days we can anticipate a considerable amount of finger pointing, perhaps a bit of name calling, and at least one or two vocal individuals who call for an investigation of some sort. None of that will solve any real problems. But there’s a lesson in here for the rest of us, if we’re paying attention.
Aviation is critical to the health and welfare of the U.S. economy. Like it or not, we’re not willing to wait for that package from California to arrive in our New York apartment after a couple weeks of on the trail in a saddlebag under the bouncing butt of a pony express rider. We want what we want now, because we’ve learned that aviation can get it to us quickly. A lot of us are even willing to pay extra to get whatever we’re waiting for tomorrow — and more often than not that means it comes to us by air.
As long as forward thinking folks like the managers in Lakeland continue to beat the bushes in search of providers who are willing to set up shop, it will all work out in the long run. And as long as there are service providers who are willing to take their best shot at building a bigger, better service through hard work, the acceptance of the fiscal risks, and the vagaries of ever changing fuel costs, we’ve got a shot at making something wonderful happen.
Let’s hope this particular airline finds its way out of the woods, gets back in gear, and gets passengers to their destination again, safely and in a timely manner. There will be hiccups along the way, sure. There will be gaffes made by people who would have done better to remain quiet, and there will most definitely be bumps in the road of life as we travel along it. But as long as every one keeps putting their best effort into the game, we’re on the right track.
Brighter, better days are ahead. Count on it.
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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