John Amundsen, general manager of Tailwheels Etc., stands in front of a 2012 Cessna 162 Skycatcher light sport airplane used by the flight school at Lakeland Linder Regional Airport. Amundsen said airport officials have been accommodating.
By John Chambliss
Published: Saturday, December 8, 2012 at 12:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, December 9, 2012 at 3:12 a.m.
LAKELAND | Lakeland Linder Regional Airport turned a profit in 2012 for the first time in eight years.
The $153,000 profit comes at a time when Lakeland Linder lost its only commercial carrier and faces questions about the future of commercial air there.
"Obviously, the sky isn't falling," Lakeland Linder Director Gene Conrad said of the profit. "There is a positive feel and push for people to be here."
The airport made money by increasing its occupancy rate for the number of tenants who lease space there. In less than three years, the rate has gone from 70 percent to 90 percent, he said.
Conrad, who started in January 2010, said the airport has become more business friendly by reducing minimum standard restrictions for incoming businesses that rent space. For example, the city no longer dictates hours a business must be open or how many square feet of space must be rented.
There are two ways the airport can make money. This year, 90 percent of its money came from leasing space to businesses. If commercial air were to begin, the airport could charge an airline landing fees and rent space inside the terminal. In addition, the airport would make a percentage of gross receipts from rental car companies if an airline was flying into Lakeland Linder.
But questions persist about whether commercial air service will resume after Direct Air left in March. The Myrtle Beach, S.C., airline abruptly canceled all its flights, including service to Lakeland, on March 12. The discount airline filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy a few days afterward. Direct Air officials blamed "rising fuel costs and other operating expenses."
Early next year, a consultant and Conrad plan to meet with officials from both US Airways and Delta Airlines. Their goal will be to convince the airline officials that Lakeland can sustain a big airline despite previous failures and its proximity to Tampa and Orlando.
Conrad said he plans to stress the convenience of a small airport and that Lakeland is the biggest city in Florida without commercial service. Initially, parking at the airport will be free.
He also will come equipped with lots of data.
NUMBERS GOOD, LOCATION A PROBLEM
At a recent meeting, City Commissioner Phillip Walker asked Conrad if progress was being made to resume commercial air service.
Conrad said yes.
Data from the Airline Reporting Co. compiled by a consultant shows that from July 2011 to June 2012, there were an estimated 31,968 bookings in a 20-mile radius from Lakeland Linder on Internet-based travel web sites, such as Expedia or Orbitz.
The consultant will cost the city about $20,000 to $25,000.
The numbers, which don't include bookings made through airline websites, were good, Conrad said.
Lakeland ranks third among Pensacola, Fort Walton Beach, Melbourne, Gainesville, Tallahassee and Daytona Beach. Both U.S. Air and Delta fly out of the other cities.
Pensacola, with 39,721 bookings, and Fort Walton Beach, with 33,602, were ahead of Lakeland.
"They have Eglin Air Force Base," Conrad said of the No. 1 and No. 2 cities. "We're competitive with those guys, and we don't have a large military base."
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