Gene Conrad, Direct Air Proving Commercial Flight Can Succeed in Lakeland

I was watching the Lakeland City Commission meeting from July 5 on the City Government channel this evening, and I was so impressed by what I was watching that I had to write a new post.

The City Commission was listening to a report from Lakeland Linder Airport Director Gene Conrad, who has been on the job since January 2010. Conrad was not only providing an update on the success of Direct Air’s service from the past couple of weeks but also on ongoing and upcoming improvements at the facility.

Lakeland Linder Airport (from LakelandAirport.com)

I’ve already been shocked by how well the Direct Air deal has worked so far. I really had low expectations for commercial service from Lakeland, considering how it hadn’t worked in the past and that the airport in general had performed so poorly in recent years (it lost more than $300,000 in 2010, according to The Ledger).

Conrad first brought in a new restaurant tenant and a charter jet service that is now based in Lakeland before partnering with Direct Air. It’s no secret that expanded commercial service is a major goal of Conrad’s and the city’s, and the early results have been promising.

The airline has said that there have already been 14,000 one-way tickets bought through Lakeland for the rest of the year, and the marketing campaign (paid for largely by the city and county) seems to be making a difference. The airport only needs 10,000 passengers to receive $1 million from the FAA instead of the $150,000 it has been receiving. I’ll admit that I’m even intrigued by the thought of a trip to Myrtle Beach or Niagara Falls, considering the cheap parking, low fares and convenience of flying out of Lakeland.

Conrad even said in his Monday Profile in The Ledger this January that he wants there to be flights from Lakeland to Europe by 2016. He’s certainly ambitious, but he’s proven so far that he knows what he’s doing.

What’s possibly most impressive, though, are his commitments to the general aviation community that has supported the airport and Sun N’Fun for so long, as well as to finding sources of revenue for facility improvements that won’t overwhelm the city budget.

Conrad said during the Commission meeting that the airport has bent over backwards to make sure the concerns of general aviators are being met. That includes convenient access even with the increased security and plans to improve the space available at the Fly-In.

The improved space will come in part from a planned paved extension along one of the runways that is being funded by the FAA. That project will also help address some of the drainage issues that arose with the terrible storm that passed through the Fly-In this year. The airport will also use increased FAA funding to improve the terminal and other capital projects.

Conrad’s vision for the facility is even broader than that, if you can imagine. He spoke of plans to move the air traffic control tower to a location closer to the Central Florida Aerospace Academy so that students can have better access to the tower’s equipment and employees as they learn about aviation.

Although general aviators I’m sure still have concerns (my father-in-law is a pilot, so I’ve heard his), I think Lakeland was starting to lose that crowd anyway. Bartow and Winter Haven are always going to have a more intimate feel – and from what I hear, cheaper fuel prices – and I don’t know if Lakeland Linder was really going to be able to win enough of the casual aviators back to support the airport going forward.

That’s why Conrad’s vision and commitment to incorporating commercial airlines as a niche service, as he put it, is smart and necessary. That wasn’t my view of the situation six months ago, but I think I’m being proven wrong. Lakeland Linder has its best chance to finally be a successful regional airport that complements Tampa and Orlando and still provides a unique, valuable service.

Direct Air has said it’s considering adding more routes in the future. If I were Conrad, I’d push hard for a route from Lakeland to Newark, N.J., to join the airline’s offerings from here. Newark is basically in New York for those who aren’t familiar, and I know I would jump at the chance to fly non-stop from here to the Big Apple for only $99 rather than going out of Tampa or Orlando. There’s also probably enough of a business crowd that wants to avoid the bigger airports to fill those flights.

So, consider me impressed. A few dozen jobs have already been added, the facility is no longer projected to be a drag on the city budget, and the region is receiving a fresh dose of marketing nationally because of the commercial service. There’s a lot of credit due to a lot of people, but kudos primarily to Conrad for leading the charge.

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One Response to Gene Conrad, Direct Air Proving Commercial Flight Can Succeed in Lakeland

  1. You’re absolutely right about your opinions of new airport director Gene Conrad. He is a remarkable “catch” for the Lakeland facility and will prove to be an asset to the broader community as well. I observed as he played out his part in building the new Branson, Missouri commercial airport three years ago and watched his nearly single-handed effort to attract two airlines flying their first passengers on the day of the official opening. Two months later the airport was busting at the seams with one of the biggest “invasions” of general aviation aircraft in a three day period, when well-healed parents flew their advantaged children to church camps scattered about the county. Owners of biz jets and twin Cessnas alike wrote for weeks about the first class treatment he provided them. Commercial carriers will bring exciting and convenient opportunies to Lakeland, but the job Gene will do for the general aviation traffic will be just as meaningful. A well-respected aviation writer introduced one of his widely used textbooks with this truism, “The most important main street in any town is its airport.” Gene will see that Lakeland is no exception.

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