The airport, which had about 115,500 operations in 2016, expected to have anywhere between 8,000 and 9,000 during the week of SUN ’n FUN, according to Gene Conrad, airport manager.
“And those are just operations on the pavement,” he said. “We don’t count the operations on Paradise Field in Paradise City, but that could be anywhere from 300 to 500 a day.”He said those operations aren’t counted because the pilots flying in Paradise City don’t talk to the air traffic controllers.During the show, the FAA brings about 62 additional controllers to Lakeland to help handle the traffic.
Since 2013, when sequestration hit, the airport and SUN ’n FUN have been required to reimburse the federal agency.
“This year I think our bill is about $266,000,” he reported, noting that’s just an estimate and the final tally will come after the show.
He’s quick to note that the airport is fortunate, because of partnerships with Visit Florida, the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, Polk County Sports Marketing and the Polk County Tourist Development Council that help offset the costs.
Visitors to this year’s fly-in no doubt noticed a large hangar under construction with a NOAA logo on it. That’s for the NOAA Hurricane Hunters, who are moving to KLAL from MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.
Construction on the 100,000-square-foot hangar began Dec. 5 and is expected to be completed by May 1. The Hurricane Hunters, who have to be out of MacDill by July 1, 2017, are bringing 110 people and nine airplanes to KLAL, including P-3 Orions, a Gulfstream IV, Twin Otters, a King Air, and Twin Commanders.
“They’re studying tornadoes this year,” Conrad said. “They’re studying snow packs. It’s not just the hurricane hunting that they do. They’re doing missions all over the country for scientific purposes.”
Conrad credits the tremendous growth at the airport, in part, to the Central Florida Aerospace Academy, the aviation high school opened a few years ago.
“When we built CFAA five years ago, I said I can only imagine what it will do to our airport. Then we had no flight schools, now we have five. Then we had 68,000 operations a year, we’re now doing over 115,000. So this is another one of those anchors for our airport, having NOAA here with their prestige. They’re world renowned for what they do, especially here in the United States and here in Florida. Because obviously we see a lot of hurricanes go by.”
He sees NOAA spurring more growth and economic activity.
“Potentially other companies will base here,” he said. “Our companies that are currently located here will hopefully be doing work for them — avionics work and mechanic maintenance work on their aircraft.”
“Then when you look at the CFAA, the Lakeland Aero Club and Polk State College, the kids will be able to go and visit the facility and talk to those highly skilled folks,” he continued. “It’s just a great energy that’s been created with SUN ’n FUN being here and now, with NOAA being here, it really raises the bar of what we do here.”
The airport, which is home to 75 businesses and more than 1,100 employees, is run by a staff of just 16 people.
“We have 1,700 acres and a million square feet of facilities,” he said. “Right now we have over $30 million worth of projects that are being built on the airport right now. We’re pretty busy on a daily basis.”
Other projects include a new hotel on the north side of the airport next to the Hilton Garden Inn, construction of about 12 T-hangars, and a recent $6.8 million grant to do several long taxiway projects.
While SUN ‘n FUN is just six days a year, Conrad noted that planning for the huge event “never stops.”
“It’s a year-round process. We have checklists that we follow each month. We know what we need to be doing to get ready for the event. We meet with SUN ’n FUN officials on a year-round basis to get ready for the event.”
“It’s all about supporting each other so we can both do what we need to do and keep supporting aviation and help it grow,” he said. “That’s the big thing.”