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Aviation in Polk is Soaring

March 29, 2024 News

Three leaders in the aviation industry in Polk County agree on one thing – the future is sunny, and the skies are clear.

Much of their optimism starts with the recent announcement that Lakeland International Airport (KLAL) landed Avelo,a commercial airline, and has announced service to New Haven beginning in June. 

But there’s so much more, and Gene Conrad, President & CEO of the Aerospace Center for Education and SUN ‘n FUN Aerospace Expo, as well as Central Florida Development Council Board Member (CFDC); Rick Garcia, founder and owner of Gulf Coast Avionics and chair of the CFDC’s Aviation Committee; and KLAL Airport Director Kris Hallstrand answered three questions on the state of aviation and aerospace in Polk County. 

Here’s what they had to say, lightly edited.  

QUESTION: What was the highlight of 2023? 

Hallstrand: The strength of the businesses/tenants of the airport.  We remained 100% occupancy of our 2 million-plus square feet of lease space that the airport owns and operates.  The airport signed an operating agreement with Avelo Airlines for commercial passenger service for our community and business and tourism partners.  

Conrad: A renewed focus on our 49th Annual SUN ‘n FUN Fly-In in anticipation of our 50th in 2024, along with new and innovative programming at ACE. Last year’s Fly-In saw a renewed focus on the guest experience and renewed programming and entertainment, which in turn led to increased attendance and improved customer experience – launching our organization into 2024.  

ACE’s Skylab Innovation Center, in partnership with Polk County Public Schools and our Polk County airport partners, will host over 4,000 fifth-graders for an immersive STEM-based field trip program during the 2023-2024 school year.  

Garcia: That Lakeland International Airports got airline service and that Gulf Coast Avionics expanded into the old fixed-wing aviation hangar and hired more technicians. 

QUESTION: What’s new for your organization in 2024?   

Hallstrand: Starting up airline service with Avelo in June 2024. Our recent rebrand to Lakeland International Airport.

Also, Sun ‘n Fun will host its 50th expo to support the financial needs of ACE, which provides educational programs for the next generation of aerospace professionals.  Our community youth benefit from the educational programs that ACE offers in aerospace/ STEM programs. 

Conrad: The 50th Fly-In, from April 9 through 14, will be a massive celebration of aviation and our organization’s 50-year history in Polk County.  We will kick it off with an opening night concert featuring Trace Adkins and special guest Sara Evans. 

In partnership with KLAL and Visit Central Florida, and because of the growth and future development of the airport, we are embarking on an 18-month effort to develop a Master Site Plan for the Fly-In and ACE campus.  The plan will help us shape our footprint at LAL for the next 50 years. 

Garcia: We hope Avelo Airlines is successful, and more airlines follow them, and that we can find more qualified avionics technicians so we can grow our business to tend to the new airport’s new tenants. 

QUESTION: How would you characterize the future of aviation/aerospace in Polk County right now, and why?  

Conrad: There is tremendous momentum for aviation and aerospace as our four municipal airports continue to drive economic impact with new projects and new business development.  And along with the airports’ continued success, our countywide educational partners are driving and expanding aerospace education throughout Polk with the continued success of the Central Florida Aerospace Academy in Lakeland and the expanded Central Florida Aerospace Academy program now at Winter Haven Airport. There is no other county in the nation, through its partnerships, that has created the synergies that exist today in Polk County for aerospace education and our youth. 

Hallstrand: The aviation/aerospace industry in Polk County is strong and the future is looking outstanding. Aviation in the county has an economic impact of $1.9 billion. We expect this number to keep climbing in the years to come with strong businesses at our airports.  With the population of Polk County and Central Florida growing, our airports provide high-skill, high-wage jobs to our surrounding communities.  With other nearby airports filling up, it is only natural for us to grow and provide more services and job creation to further our economic impact. The education programs that ACE provides is also providing employers an opportunity to have a skilled workforce to recruit from here in Polk County.         

Garcia: Very bright! There are a lot of positive things happening at the airport that will enable it to grow. 

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