Hurricane Ian was Florida’s deadliest hurricane since 1935. Within days of making landfall, Operation Airdrop, an organization of more than 100 volunteer pilots, was there to transport donated supplies to those most affected. Formed in 2017, the group airlifted supplies to hurricane-affected regions up and down the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, moving supplies on the scale of hundreds of thousands of pounds.
The fact is that general aviation and local airports are a life-saving resource in times of natural disaster, and many other times. In the early months of the pandemic, when some of the most basic necessities were hard to come by, volunteer general aviation pilots helped to move personal protection equipment, ventilators, and other critical medical supplies where it was needed in short notice. Communities throughout Florida rely on general aviation for critical services such as air ambulance, search and rescue, traffic monitoring, firefighting, and law enforcement.
And, if there is one lesson learned from the pandemic, it is the value of face-to-face interaction. For businesses large and small, these aircraft are critical to ensuring the safe and timely transport of goods and personnel, food production, tourism, and many other aspects of our economy.
Here in Martin County at Witham Field, we have over 120,000 annual operations. We are a financially self-sustaining general aviation airport, with an economic impact of $700 million. Four hundred planes are based at Witham Field and aviation businesses such as Daher, Boeing, and Dassault have operations here.
General aviation in Florida supports a payroll of over $5.4 billion per year and about $18.4 billion of the state’s economy. Yet, note that according to a 2022 Boeing study, over the next 20 years the aviation industry in North America will require 128,000 new pilots and 134,000 new technicians. Therefore, flight training programs across our state need our support, such as those at the Treasure Coast Flight School based right here at Witham Field.
While airports like ours and the industry are starting to recover, we need to continue to positively recognize this important part of our infrastructure. And we need to look toward the future.
For example, general aviation is making great strides in emerging technologies such as advanced air mobility (AAM), and investments in sustainable fuel and technologies. Many companies are developing aircraft that use batteries or hydrogen fuel cells to power electric motors, eliminating carbon emissions from the flight.
Eve Air Mobility announced its plans to partner with charter group GlobalX to develop technology and infrastructure for air taxis between Miami International Airport and the Miami Beach Convention Center. Joby Aviation partnered with Reef Technology to bring its aerial ridesharing service to Miami by 2024. And, Supernal, originally a division of Hyundai Motor Group, signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Miami to create a comprehensive engagement framework that will enable development of AAM in the city. The examples go on and on.
And there are other positive trends with regard to tourism and business travel. Right now as we speak, the National Business Aviation Association’s annual Convention and Exhibition is taking place and is the biggest business aviation event of the year. Many of these new areas of growth will be proudly on display.
With all of these promising areas for growth, support at the federal level for airport funding, workforce development programs, and sustainable fuel tax credits, are important now more than ever to ensure that this industry continues to not only thrive but grow. Let’s work together to ensure that this industry reaches its full potential, and we continue to create jobs and ensure economic growth.
Joe Catrambone is the president and CEO of the Stuart/Martin County Chamber of Commerce