Sequestration’s silver lining

The news last week that the FAA will delay closing 149 contract control towers should come as a bit of a relief to the folks at SUN ’n FUN, since Lakeland-Linder Regional Airport was among the first slated to close.

That meant SUN ’n FUN had to come up with the money to pay controllers during the week of the fly-in. The FAA’s latest decision, however, doesn’t let SUN ’n FUN off the hook.

While the FAA will continue to pay for two to three controllers for day-to-day operations at the field, the traffic associated with the fly-in requires up to 72 additional controllers. Previously, the FAA covered the costs for those additional controllers. Now, it’s up to SUN ’n FUN to cover those costs.

While the exact amount isn’t known, it is expected to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. SUN ’n FUN has to cover the costs for the controllers to travel here, lodging, food and other expenses.

“We don’t know the real numbers yet,” said John “Lites” Leenhouts, SUN ’n FUN president.

What he does know is that paying the bill means less money for the organization’s scholarship and education programs, such as the outreach programs, the summer camps, afterschool programs for the students at the Central Florida Aerospace Academy, and more.

But an unexpected thing happened with all the bad news surrounding the effects of sequestration on aviation. The Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association stepped in as a major sponsor, offering to pay some of the costs of the controllers, along with Visit Florida and the Lakeland Linder Airport Authority.

“The FAA’s random decision to remove the safety net is being solved by Florida leaders to offset those costs,” Leenhouts said. “If they didn’t step up, it would have been devastating.”

Even better, according to some SUN ’n FUN officials, is that those tourism associations now have SUN ’n FUN firmly on their radar screens.

That makes sense, since the fly-in generates about $67 million for the local area, officials estimate. It is the largest convention in the state, but often the tourism efforts were more focused on beaches and baseball.

The fly-in also has received increased attention from local television stations, with camera crews expected to be at the show all day Friday and Saturday. That can only increase awareness of the fly-in, hopefully inspiring more aviators and attendees for the remaining days of this year’s fly-in and subsequent years.

Meanwhile, those who have been to SUN ’n FUN for years and years shouldn’t notice anything different, Leenhouts says.

“If you’ve been here before, you won’t know the difference,” he says. “It looks, smells and tastes the same.”

“The highly trained controllers who are here are the ones who have been here forever,” he continues. “Whether this is your 15th year or first year, you’ll see that air traffic is handled very professionally.”

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