There was a lot happening on opening day of this year’s SUN ’n FUN, including a milestone for Lakeland Linder Regional Airport: A groundbreaking ceremony was held for the airport’s new air traffic control tower.
The new tower will be 141 feet, significantly higher than the 50-foot tower now in operation.
“That was built in the late 1970s,” noted Gene Conrad, airport manager.
The new tower, on the north side of the airport, will cost $5.2 million to build, with most of the funds coming from a grant from the Florida Department of Transportation.
“It should be ready to go for SUN ’n FUN 2016,” Conrad said.
The new tower is just one more improvement to the bustling airport, which gets busier and busier every year.
Conrad reports that in March, the airport had 11,261 operations, making it the third busiest month in the last five years. In just the first eight days of April — long before SUN ’n FUN began — the airport saw 3,717 operations.
It’s not surprising, when you consider that the airport now has five flight schools and 75 businesses and organizations that call KLAL home. More than 1,000 employees come to the airport on any given day to work.
“The state did a study in 2010 that showed the airport had an economic impact of $162 million,” Conrad said. “In August 2014, that was updated to $284 million. All the improvements we have made to the airport — the solar farm, the (Central Florida Aerospace Academy) high school and all the new tenants — have resulted in our economic contribution increasing by $122 million.”
Conrad was quick to note that it’s not just KLAL where things are happening. The other three GA airports in Polk County — Winter Haven, Bartow, and Lake Wales — have a total economic impact of more than $400 million.
“Aviation is alive and well in Polk County,” he said.
And the future of aviation in the county is looking brighter with the emphasis on education from SUN ’n FUN and other organizations on the airport.
It’s already home to the Central Florida Aerospace Academy, with students from Polk State College also training and taking classes here. Under renovation is the old FlightSafety building and once that $1.5 million project is complete, Polk State College will move into and begin classes there, hopefully in the fall.
“There are so many jobs available,” Conrad said, referring to the shortages of both pilots and mechanics. “We’re trying to be part of the solution as there’s a real shortage of employees coming down the pike.”
As an employer, Lakeland Linder is already benefitting from the educational facilities on the field. Through an internship program, students can begin working at the airport, getting valuable experience.
For example, Adam Lunn, now the airport’s operations coordinator, started as an intern. And two former CFAA students, Phillip Harrington and Angel Castellanos, are now at the airport as interns.
Other improvements at the airport were on display at this year’s SUN ‘n FUN, including the recently completed Warbird Ramp, which doubled in size, and the new headquarters for the EAA Warbirds of America.
Also in the works is a facility for Customs and Border Patrol, which will allow pilots to fly into KLAL from destinations outside the country.
Once that is up and running, the airport may be looking at a name change, according to Conrad, as it will become an international airport.
But for now, Conrad and the other employees at KLAL remained focused on SUN ’n FUN — next year’s show, that is.
“It’s a year-round process to get ready for SUN ’n FUN,” he said.