Hiccups, gaffes, and bumps in the road

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.


People who read this article also read articles on airparks, airshow, airshows, avgas, aviation fuel, aviation news, aircraft owner, avionics, buy a plane, FAA, fly-in, flying, general aviation, learn to fly, pilots, Light-Sport Aircraft, LSA, and Sport Pilot.



  1. Allen Morris says

    After working for 10 different FAR 121 airlines from 1987 until 1997 I am very familiar with the nature of the start-up airline. For more insight into the trials and tribulations of a profesional pilot caught in the throes of post-degulation chaos I suggest that you read The Rogue Aviator (In the Back Alleys of Aviation) by Ace Abbott (www.therogueaviator.com)  Allen Morris 

  2. Rod Beck says

    WHAT HAPPENED? Or better still, what DIDN”T happen!
    Quick answer: No “marketdemand study” or a faulty one performed to justify the service to begin with!

  3. Mossie3 says

    The carrier that ceased service operated as a public charter and not as a scheduled airline. Big difference when it comes to service and sustainability. Usually, public charters are associated with low cost air fares. They advertise for a flight in the future, set the rate based on expected costs, collect the money, and then fly the trip. The charter outfit does not normally have the benefit of volume or discount fuel sales as does the scheduled air carriers. As fuel prices go up, the trip suddenly becomes unprofitable. The business decides to not fly. Passengers (and flight crew) are often stranded. DOT rules do not require public charters to respond to customer needs (meaning, having to accommodate or reschedule them for the cancelled trip). A paying customer can seek to recover their payment, but the charter operator doesn’t haven’t the money (otherwise it would have flown the trip). So, in actuality, the demise of the charter operation is not as much a doom and gloom indictment of aviation, as it a statement of how people will seek out the cheapest fares and not fully investigate the operation. Of course, the later is partially attributed to the industry itself in that it doesn’t make a clear distinction between a public charter and a scheduled air carrier. Still, caveat emptor!

  4. Starandball says

    Good comment by bigbandera. This is an industry being strangled by a myriad of issues, not the least of which is the fuel hose around all our necks. Stable fuel prices are an economic issue and a national security issue in the USA. The price of gas (mo, 100LL, Jet A, whatever) impacts our economy perhaps more than any other single factor. Yet I see little to nom effort to improve aviation fuel economy outside of Boeing and Airbus and their engine partners. And they are only doing it because the airlines are screaming. That helps the corporate jet market as well due to trickle down engine technology. But the rest of us drive the best engine 1940s technology has to offer. We can solve lots of issues by cutting fuel prices. I am loathe to call for public/private partnerships on many things, but if our national economy and security are as much at stake as air service from Lakeland, why not get the entire weight of our govt. and economy behind a massive effort to work on alternative fuels, increased fuel economy and price stabilization? Could it possibly end upmworse than things ate now?

  5. Mike says

    As the economy goes…so does General Aviation!

    I echo Rod Beck’s comments regarding the supply and demand equation.  To sustain this aviation business, we need to be profitable and operate under strict common sense business principles.

    Aviation has a romance that seems to fixate the aviation provider, whether it be the FBO operator, or Flight School, etc.  Because of the attraction to aviation, we tend to believe everyone wants our product and service, but that is only in our little world, not the general public.  

    One problem that aviation faces, and we need to get it figured out quickly, is that we can’t go with the “everyone knows who we are” method of marketing.  As a professional Business Development Aviation Consultant, I see why General Aviation is on the downward slope…and it is a slippery steep one at that!

    I agree with the fact that General Aviation is indeed, very important to the economy but there aren’t enough investors interested in a GA business because of the lack of return.  NOW, if we decided that we wanted to offer a product and service that was exceptional, including a price structure that would produce a profit, I think everyone in General Aviation would benefit!  Instead, we are trying to figure out ways of losing money in business because we don’t know how to market and sell our product and service.

    The “Next Sucker Please” does have a certain negativity to it, but those suckers are getting fewer and fewer.  We need to have a business plan and principles that will bring investors back into the business, so that we can improve our services and deliver a better product, not the decay and downward spiral that we are currently experiencing. 

    Michael W Dempsey (get-aviation dot com) 

  6. bigbandera says

    Another aviation business causality – nothing new! If one were to closely examine why so many “aborted takesoffs” and  aviation ventures fail, they all have a commonallity: the “demand” just didn’t have the VOLUME to sustain the business.
    An entry problem from “day one”, is the very high fixed cost and breakeven points, characteristic of aviation, be it an airline, FBO start-up or a new LSA coming to market. My collegue, Mike Dempsey and I, have had numeous discussions about how “dysfunctional” the aviation business is from traditional business standards.
    With the exception of the “airlines”, General Avation, has never been nor will it ever have “mass” appeal. Fact; Less the 1/4 of 1% of the general population have an interest in “GA” – even if you were to increase the demand by 400% – only about 1 in 350 folks of would be your potential customer base. Would you INVEST in any business that had such a limited or vertical market – I dought it!
    What GA needs “yesterday” is this: 1.Identifying WHO is our BEST customer 2. WHO has the greatest NEED – NOT want – for our products and services? 3. And MOST importantly – can we MAKE money at this – yes, I said MONEY!
    It seems those who have entered GA as a “business” with little if any concern about a profit are the most “liked” by their customers; those who make even a small or meger profit are “resented” – why hell, YOUR not surpose to make MONEY in GA -aren’t you REALLY doing this as some sort of noble cause?
    Why is that – your in it for the love of it – aren’t you? And again, here we get back to this basic “law of supply and demand” thing – just ask why professional pilots work for minimal wages – over supply – the owners (airlines, corporate flight departments, etc) have their pick of the litter! And GA airports - my estimate is 50% are NOT justified – no wonder an FBO didn’t work (financially) in “Home Brew”,TN” – no demand - solution – wall size Hobbs Meter in the pilots lounge?
    But wait – there will ALWAYS be the avaition dreamer/idealist – who, no matter what – is determined to make a success of it and after the “passion” wanes and the money runs out – miserable, perhaps divorced and “broke” – all in the name of this headstrong desire to be in avaition? 
    Perhap our title “Aviation Business – Next Sucker Please?” (aviationbiz.us) may be rather poetic after all.
    Perhaps the title of recent article  March 8th,”Avaition Business – Next Sucker Please?” (aviationbiz.us) may be rather poetic after all.
     Perhaps the title “Aviation – Next Sucker Please?” (aviationbiz.us) may quite poetic after all.
    have thier “pick of the litter”
    As the title of our most recent joint article; “Aviation – Next Sucker?”

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