Southwest Florida’s Niche Airports Taking Flight
March 2, 2017
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  • A CENTURY AGO — EVEN LESS, considering that barnstormers and mail-service pilots provided the only air traffic in most American towns before World War II — trains and their depots were the commercial travel hubs of every community. Train activity brought great wealth down the tracks to many regions, not to mention the freedom to come or go without walking or driving.

    No more.

    Nowadays, that often-unnoticed engine of local and regional economies — transportation — is provided by airports. Not just international behemoths such as Miami, Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood, Orlando or Southwest Florida International, either, but by niche airports that serve both public and private interests.

    Without these smaller-scale general aviation meccas, many communities might falter, or at least be significantly less wealthy and vibrant.

    Here, three such hubs are not only prominent in the lives of their communities, but are so well managed they pay for themselves while creating regional wealth: Naples Municipal Airport, Page Field in Fort Myers and Punta Gorda Airport in Charlotte County.

    These airports weave history and romance into a dynamic and responsive economic fabric that supports hundreds of planes in leased hangars or tie-downs at each airport; private and business traffic as well as commercial traffic in Naples and Punta Gorda; aircraft maintenance services; law enforcement, emergency medical or military flights; mosquito control operations; car rental agencies; and businesses that offer pilot lessons and other aviation-career training.

    Each of these airports has won awards or been selected as operations at the top of their game in recent years. In a country where roughly 3,000 general aviation airports or Fixed-Base Operators exist, according to Aviation Research Group International, that’s promising for the future and flexibility of Southwest Florida. Especially since some other airports don’t break even, instead costing their communities money. Hangar and land leasing, as well as fuel sales, provide much of the revenue in these parts.

    At Naples Municipal Airport, the most lucrative operation in the region, the airport logo is not much of an exaggeration. “The best little airport in the country,” it reads.

    In fact, Professional Pilot magazine named NMA No. 23 in the nation for Best FBO and No. 12 in the nation for Best Independent FBO (not supported by taxpayers) last May. An FBO provides fuel and hangar space or parking with other services for private and corporate aircraft and, for the past year in Naples, also for commercial jets operated by Elite Airlines.

    For NMA, the bulk of commerce and profit is private, says Diane Terrill, director of strategy and communication. The year-old commercial effort by Elite has struggled against the competitive proximity of Southwest Florida International Airport (RSW) and now offers a couple of flights a week to Portland, Me., and Islip, N.Y. (on the south shore of Long Island). Elite has halted its Newark service for the time being.

    “Outside of public agencies, private planes is primarily what we do — we service private transportation,” explains Ms. Terrill. NMA also houses a number of flight schools that provide flight training and other aviation training, she adds.

    And in Naples, private air transportation is robust.

    Last year NMA saw more than 95,000 takes-offs and landings. The airport has 363 based aircraft, of which 224 are single engine, 70 are multi-engine/piston-driven, 55 are jets and 15 are helicopters.

    The busiest times of the year at NMA are around the Naples Winter Wine Festival and President’s Day. During this year’s NWWF, 1,511 aircraft arrived or departed in a five-day span in late January. Over President’s Day Feb. 16-20, airport officials say, the number reached 1,851.

    But the biggest single day? That happens to be the day after Christmas. On Dec. 26, 2016, the airport accommodated 510 arrivals and departures.

    All of them rely on two runways that are sufficient both for current and future needs in terms of length: the 6,600-foot main runway, and a 5,000-foot crosswind runway. When the airport embarks next year on a two-year study to look at needs and development through about 2040, lengthening those runways will not be on the table, Ms. Terrill says.

    But using all the newest technology to create the lowest possible impact — in noise abatement, in pollution, in visibility to the residences near the airport — will be a prominent part of the planning.

    “This was a World War II-era airport as Page Field and Punta Gorda were, and when they developed it and then later (in 1969) turned it over to Naples, no one imagined there would be so much development around it. But there is, so our room is limited.”

    On the heels of its two busiest weekends of the year, no one should be surprised that NMA is considered the second-busiest contract air traffic control tower for IFR operations (the acronym stands for Instrument Flight Rules) in the United States.

    Ms. Terrill explains it this way:

    “Air traffic control towers are controlled by the FAA and mostly operated by FAA personnel. But contract towers are for smaller but still busy airports with complicated air space. They’re operated by contractors to the FAA.”

    One of the most complicated of all is Naples — the No. 2 busiest.

    “So many other aircraft use this airspace — and there are so many different types of aircraft, everything from little two-seaters to major types of aircraft — that this can seem like a major international airport,” Ms. Terrill says.

    “Some people come here to work from places like O’Hare (in Chicago and famously busy), and when they get here they’re blown away by how busy and how complicated it is.”

    Like both Page Field and Punta Gorda Airport, Naples Municipal Airport does it all: offers flight schools, air charter operators, car rental agencies and corporate aviation and non-aviation businesses, as well as fire/rescue services, mosquito control, the Collier County Sheriff’s Aviation Unit and other community services, according to officials.

    Even the train depots and hubs of once upon a time couldn’t come close to that.

    And independent it is, too: NMA relies on no property taxes, instead maintaining and improving the airport with money from its operations, including hangar and land leases with fuel sales, and the occasional help of a federal or state grant.

    As a result, the airport generates more than $283 million each year in impact to the community, according to the Florida Department of Transportation.

    Past and present

    Niche airports, especially, are marriages of both the past and the present — thus, they celebrate the past as they move toward the future in ways larger airports might not.

    Naples includes a vibrant and expanded Museum of Military Memorabilia, for example. And at the Punta Gorda Airport this month, you can see something unlikely ever to occur at RSW: Starting March 26, as many as 36 World War II airplanes will fly in for eight or nine days as part of a “formation clinic” held by the North American Trainer Association, PGA spokeswoman Jennifer Smith says.

    The clinic will certify that participating pilots are trained and prepared to fly in formation — and not just anywhere, but at the largest air shows in the United States, including the Sun N Fun International Fly-In and Expo in Lakeland (coming up April 4-9).

    “Basically, a bunch of war-bird pilots gather to get their hours in for certification to fly in formation at air shows, and they do it at the Punta Gorda Airport,” Ms. Smith says.

    The clinic won’t be the first time those planes have landed in the region.

    Page Field famously hosted the late Gen. Jimmy Doolittle, then a lieutenant colonel, early in 1942 when he flew into the field with his squadron of B-25 bombers to practice takeoffs and landings on a short runway in preparation for the raid on Tokyo. On April 18 of that year, only 17 weeks after Pearl Harbor, those planes struck at Japan in a surprise attack launched from the deck of an aircraft carrier deep in the western Pacific.

    On permanent display at Page Field for today’s pilots, passengers and visitors to admire are a P-51 Mustang (the premier U.S. fighter plane in World War II) and an AT-6 Texan (a training plane). “It’s a wonderful first impression for someone flying in on their own plane from elsewhere,” says Jeff Mulder, executive director of the airport that is part of the Lee County Port Authority (which also operates RSW).

    Naples, meanwhile, has its eye on the future as well as the past. The airport also serves as home for the Experimental Aircraft Association– Chapter 1067, which recently brought the Ford Tri-Motor to town — a 1929 aircraft that was the first commercial plane developed.

    The EAA is an energetic promoter of aviation as a career path for young people — a way of looking forward by looking back, one more thing niche airports do better than anybody else. ¦