But that’s nothing new for the airport, where there is always something new going on.
Just since last year’s SUN ’n FUN, the airport opened its new U.S. Customs facility; cut the ribbon on the new NOAA building; a new hotel, Staybridge Suites, opened on the airport’s grounds; new T- hangars are being built; while work has just begun on a new 42-acre MRO air cargo develop- ment on the north side of the airport.
During all this, operations at the airport grew from 115,000 in 2016 to 118,000 in 2017, with expectations that will be topped in 2018.
“There is just so much opportunity here,” says Gene Conrad, airport manager.
It’s no surprise that all that activity also has boosted employment on the airport grounds. Conrad reports that about 1,500 people work on the airport at the various businesses. That’s up from 1,100 in 2014.
The new Customs facility officially opened Dec. 13, 2017. The facility is open Thursday through Monday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
While it is being used extensively by jet drivers, single-engine piston pilots can’t use it right now because of regulations that require an overflight permit, which requires aircraft to be capable of flying over 12,500’.
“My understanding is there is an effort to get rid of that rule within the next year,” Conrad said. “And that will help us significantly.”
He notes that the Customs facility is also a key building block in the future of KLAL.
“For other developments that we are looking forward to here as far as air cargo and other things,” he explained. “So, having them here is good thing.”
During last year’s SUN ’n FUN, the new headquarters for the NOAA Hurricane Hunters was being completed. It was finished on May 15, 2017.
“It took us just five-and-a-half months to build a 106,000-square-foot facility for 110 people and nine airplanes,” he reported.
And, fittingly, the ribbon-cutting was held on June 2, just one day after the official start of hurricane season.
That was a good thing, as well, as last year’s hurricane season was a busy one, with Harvey, Irma, Maria, and various other storms the Hurricane Hunters had to track.
One of those hurricanes, Irma, came right over KLAL, causing devastation to the SUN ’n FUN grounds. The hurricane caused about $165,000 in damage to various facilities around the airport, Conrad reports.
During Irma, the Hurricane Hunters repositioned their airplanes to New Orleans, which left the new hangar vacant.
NOAA was gracious enough to allow the local sheriff’s department to use the hangar to protect its assets, including helicopters, emergency response vehicles, and more, Conrad said.
“The entire hangar was completely full during the storm,” he added.
The hangar was also put to good use during this year’s SUN ‘n FUN as it was where all the airshow performers were based.
“It is a great place for them to call home during the week,” he said.
Operations topped 118,000 in 2017, but airport officials expect that number to be passed this year.
“We are already 5,000 over for January and February, so we are on a breakneck pace right now,” Conrad said.
A big reason is the five flight schools that are based at KLAL.
“Florida is obviously a great state to do flight training,” he said, reporting that the five schools “fly quite often.”
“So we are super busy,” he said.
He reports that on just one day in February, the airport saw 696 operations.
“In some years that’s more than they do in the first day of SUN ’n FUN,” he noted.
Planning and preparation for the next year’s SUN ’n FUN begins the day after this year’s fly-in ends.
So on April 10, 2017, work began to get the grounds ready for this year’s show.
“We just rehabbed Taxiway Alpha, which is the main parallel to 9/27, which is used during SUN ’n FUN as the runway for all of the single-engine aircraft,” Conrad reported before the show opened. “We just repaved that and we have nice new painted dots on Taxiway Alpha this year, so it will be very visible.”
On the far west end of Taxiway Alpha, visitors to SUN ‘n FUN saw a new taxiway — Mike — which goes north.
“That’s the taxiway that will lead to our 42-acre MRO and air cargo development,” he explained.
Construction on that 42-acre parcel is expected to begin in July, with Phase I consisting of a 50,000-square-foot cargo building and a 55,000-square-foot MRO hangar.
Phase 2 includes a 160,000-square-foot MRO hangar.
The airport’s first priority is to get the infrastructure in place for the development, he noted.
Meanwhile, back on the SUN ’n FUN campus, upgrades were made to make this year’s fly-in even better.
For example, power was added to the Warbird Ramp, so all those generators that used to power the tents and chalets on the ramp are gone.
“We are constantly working with SUN ’n FUN to improve the area and the facilities,” Conrad said.
One area that received special attention this year — something people probably don’t expect, according to Conrad — is the grass on the south side of the airport.
“We have bent over backwards, and our maintenance team has done a yeoman’s job, to maintain that grass,” he said before the show. “I hope people are surprised at how nice it looks because the airfield right now looks like a golf course. Now granted it is still an airport, so it doesn’t look like a green, but we have really spent a lot of time manicuring it and getting it super low this year, so it should be in great shape when everybody gets here.”
Why was this important to the airport crew?
“We want people who are flying in and parking on the grass to have a great experience,” he said.
Veterans to SUN ’n FUN may remember past years when the field was burned.
“Then there was a bunch of ash left, and people’s ankles would get dirty,” he said. “So, that was no fun. And then some years we would have a lot of rain, and we couldn’t catch up with the grass, and it was longer that we would like it to be. But over the last several years we have really put a focus on that. We are trying to make it easier for people to taxi through the grass and provide the best turf possible.”