KLAL has a new name: Lakeland-Linder International Airport, instead of regional airport.
The new name may have something to do with the explosive growth at the airport that is home to SUN ’n FUN.
For example, aircraft operations at the end of 2018 were just under 128,000 operations, up more than 10,000 from 117,000 in 2017.
“There’s 520 towered airports in the United States, and we’re the 112th busiest for 2018,” reports Gene Conrad, airport manager.
Fueling a lot of that activity is flight training with five flight schools, plus the Central Florida Aerospace Academy and the Lakeland Aero Club on the grounds.The weather also had a lot to do with it, he says.
“In the winter months the weather was just superb and that always helps,” he says.
Pilots who flew into SUN ‘n FUN this year may have noticed a lot of activity on the north side of the airport, where construction began Nov. 5, 2018, on a 40-acre MRO air cargo development.
“When people arrive this year they’ll see some big pipes up on the north side of the airport,” he said a few weeks before the show. “Right now it’s just a massive piece of dirt and we’re putting pipe in the ground.”
Total cost of that project is $13 million, with half coming from the Florida Department of Transportation and the other half from the airport.
The airport also was awarded a $4.7 million grant from the governor’s office to build an MRO hangar.
The construction project is vital to the future of the airport, according to Conrad.
“We have 1 million square feet of facilities, but we’re 100% full,” he reports. “In order for us to keep driving additional aviation business to the airport, we have to build infrastructure so we can bring in new things.”
In another project, the airport is partnering with KTTW to build a 55,000-square-foot hangar in the southeast corner of the airport next to Polk State College Aerospace. KTTW will house several Gulfstreams in the hangar.
“These airplane owners naturally want to base at Lakeland, but again we can’t accommodate them, so they’re building an $8 million hangar so they can accommodate their jets and some other folks,” he says.
A project that was recently completed was ramp improvements on the southeast side of the airport, which provides more parking for aircraft based at the airport.
“We also did some upgrades to the ramp and to what used to be Taxiway Foxtrot next to SUN ‘n FUN,” he continued. “When FEMA was here after Hurricane Irma, back in 2017, they did some damage to our ramps and our taxiway over there, so we received funds from them to rehab all of that. We did that prior to the event this year, so that’s complete.”
“We also built a new row of T-hangars,” he added. “Now we can accommodate 10 more airplanes. Annually we have anywhere from 30 to 40 people on the waiting list to get on the airport.”
Every four years, the state conducts an economic impact study for all the airports in the state. The last report in 2014 set KLAL’s economic impact at $284 million. In 2018, that jumped to $574 million.
With all the new activity at the airport, along with new tenants, like the NOAA Hurricane Hunters, employment on the airport itself went from 1,100 to 1,500.
Getting ready for the big show
A few weeks before SUN ’n FUN kicked off, Conrad was pleased with his crew’s preparation of the grounds for the influx of people and planes.
“Actually, we’re way ahead this year,” he said. “We’re further ahead than we’ve ever been.”
Upgraded equipment and a dedicated team get the credit.
“They do a phenomenal job maintaining the grounds on a year-round basis,” he boasts.
It may surprise many to know that with all KLAL has going on, it only has 17 full-time employees.
“If you consider 1,700 acres, 1 million square feet of facilities, 75 businesses and organizations, it’s a lot to handle,” he says. “But I have the best, most awesome team.”
And now that SUN ‘n FUN 2019 is over, that team has now working on rehabilitating the terminal ramp up on the north side of the airport.
“And then next year our project will be redoing three taxiways on the northwest side of the airport, Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie,” he adds.
“We’re always programming and revising our capital programs and what we’re going to be working on,” he says, mentioning that work has also begun on the airport’s Master Plan for the next 20 years.
“The master plan will be pretty impressive because the FAA wanted us to do that for this year because of all the growth and development that’s occurred,” he said, adding that everything that was put into the last Master Plan in 2011 has already been completed. “So it’s time to do it again.”