Moving on up
Matthew Grow, director of the Ocala International Airport, outlines the airport’s current operations and answers questions about when Ocala can expect commercial air service.
A plane taxis in from the runway at Ocala International Airport on Monday, April 18, 2022. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2022.
Ocala International Airport (OIA), owned and operated by the city of Ocala, has been described as a world-class front door to Ocala and is among the premier general aviation airports in the country. As Ocala’s dynamic business community has grown and thrived in recent years, OIA has strengthened its role as a general aviation airport and increased the economic benefits that the airport provides to the city.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) defines general aviation airports in its National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems (NPIAS) as public-use airports that do not have scheduled service or have less than 2,500 annual passenger boardings. While OIA has many capabilities, in its current role it primarily serves general aviation, corporate aviation, and the air cargo industry.
“There are different classifications of general aviation just as there are different levels of activity involving commercial aviation,’’ said Grow. “It (general aviation) means it is recreational, corporate, charter, military, training, law enforcement, medevac, and air cargo. Ocala (airport) is considered a nationally ranked general aviation airport and is at the top of the ranks of all general aviation airports.”
According to Grow, there are 100 public airports in Florida, 80 of which are general aviation; 20 are commercial, and 18 are nationally ranked, including OIA. The nationally ranked designation is based on the number of jets, on a certain number of pounds of cargo that move through it, as well as a certain number of instrument landings (jet-type aircraft and turboprops). A certain criterion must be met and with that, comes a certain amount of grant funding.
“We are one of the northern-most nationally ranked general aviation airports,” Grow stated. “There’s no doubt as to why we are nationally ranked. Our location is so close to Interstate 75 and State Road 40 cuts right through us. The airport is 1,500 acres and has a 7,400-foot runway, which can essentially accommodate up to a Boeing 757, which we receive regularly in NCAA charters. We see a lot of those in the fall when teams come in to play against the University of Florida.
“In general aviation, you don’t need a reservation or flight plan,” Grow continued. “You don’t need any of that, and that’s the beauty of it. You just get in your plane and go. There is a lot of flexibility and freedom in that. Here in Ocala, we have a very diverse fleet mix. Everything from very light small planes all the way up to the Boeing 757 aircraft that come in.”
Grow stepped into his role as director of OIA in 2005 after serving in a similar capacity as the manager of the Steamboat Springs Airport in Colorado, also a general aviation airport.
“In my personal experience working at airports in an identity crisis, they had a hard time serving their customer base because they always tried to be something other than what they were. Back in 2005, I made it clear to the city council at the time that, ‘You are either a general aviation airport or you’re trying to be something else. Which is it?’ And we’re a general aviation airport. We embrace it and we move forward. Everything we’ve done is because we’re a general aviation airport. From the control tower, which was built in 2010, to the runway extension to accommodate some of the equine transportation traffic, the T-hangars that we’re building, the airfield improvements, the apron expansions, the private hangars that we’ve encouraged investors to build, and the actual planning of the airport property is all being done as a general aviation airport.
“We’re a very good, very efficient, and fiscally responsible general aviation airport,” Grow continued. “We’re self-sufficient, which means we don’t rely on the city’s general fund for our basic operations. The money that we earn at the airport stays at the airport. We use that to pay salaries and fix the airfield and put that toward grant-matching funds, so in a way, the users of the airport are paying for the improvements and the operation of the airport. It’s not necessarily the taxpayers of Ocala/Marion County, and that’s an important distinction, especially for a general aviation airport. It’s a direction that the FAA encourages and supports—for airports to be self-sufficient and to maintain a fee structure that doesn’t necessarily subsidize aviation.”
STATE-OF-THE-ART TERMINAL UNVEILED
In February 2020, just prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the city of Ocala in partnership with Sheltair Aviation, the Ocala Airport’s fixed-based operator (FBO), opened the new main terminal, which represented a $7 million public-private investment. The state-of-the-art building houses Sheltair and includes offices, a crew lounge, a ‘quiet room’ for pilots and crew members, and flight planning areas, as well as administration offices, rental car facilities, event space, and a restaurant.
“We have a great fixed-base operator that turned things around for us fuel-saleswise and customer servicewise,” Grow said. “Sheltair Aviation is a great partner at the airport. We partner with Sheltair to offer pilot services, fuel, maintenance, and basically concierge-level services for the people who are coming and going. It is red-carpet treatment. They are a Florida-based company with multiple locations, and they are one of the best that I have worked with in my career. We’re lucky to have them here. They helped partner on the terminal building and provided funding to help construct it.
“We opened to great fanfare,” Grow added. “We created one of the greatest front doors to Ocala, Florida. Pilots land the planes here and are greeted by Sheltair. They have this marvelous building to walk into and they have all the services they need in one location where before it was kind of fragmented. It wasn’t cohesive, it wasn’t centralized like it is now. This building really brought everything together. We opened it in February and closed it in March (due to the pandemic). It was certainly disappointing. General aviation parked, commercial airlines also basically parked, and we had some of the lowest fuel sales and some of the lowest operations accounts since the recession in 2009 and 2010.”
RISING FUEL SALES AT OIA
As the region and the rest of the country emerges from the pandemic, fuel sales at OIA are on the rise. At the workshop, Grow addressed the increasing fuel sales at OIA.
“In March 2022, we’re looking at pumping about 140,000 gallons of jet fuel. That will be the best month on record at the airport since our existence began in the mid-1960s. Last year, 2021, was the best year for fuel sales. And what’s remarkable about that, what’s unique, is that there was nothing special. There were no presidential visits. There were no fire tankers flying in as we had in 2007, which was the previous record. This is all just business traffic. It’s an incredible mix between the housing industry, the manufacturing industry, and the commercial retail business flying in. It’s everywhere. I’m constantly seeing new airplanes from my office window. Planes I’ve never recognized. The fleet is changing as well. We’re seeing much larger aircraft coming in than when we were smaller. And that’s reflected in our operations console. Our operations are actually down, but our fuel sales are 20 to 30% higher.”
HOW THE PANDEMIC CHANGED GENERAL AVIATION
General aviation has changed since the onset of the pandemic, with many business travelers discovering the convenience of private aviation.
“The people with the money, the means, and wherewithal to charter airplanes who didn’t really know about chartering airplanes quickly learned about chartering airplanes,” Grow shared. “You would have brand-new customers chartering an airplane and then show up at the airport an hour and a half early. What they didn’t understand is that it was their airplane. You’re not just renting a seat, you are renting the entire airplane. There is a whole segment of the population now that has been introduced to the convenience of the business model of general aviation and chartering aircraft, and that is what helped drive fuel sales and the economy in general.
“New companies show up on our doorstep in Ocala all the time,” Grow added. “They are coming in here and looking at Ocala to expand their business opportunities. The World Equestrian Center (WEC) has helped things as well. You can’t account for what’s happening in Ocala without mentioning WEC because it has driven a lot of interest.”
As for striking a balance between operating a general aviation airport and offering commercial airline service, there is much to be considered, such as changes to the airport’s infrastructure, before transitioning to accommodate commercial service.
“The CEP can say they want airline service, but when it comes right down to it, it is the city of Ocala that is financially responsible for the airport,” Grow pointed out. “During my presentation, I said, ‘If an airline called us today, we could accommodate them tomorrow, but this is what we would have to do: We would have to convert our brand-new building; we would have to move some tenants around; we would have to move the rental car stations, and probably build some sort of holding facility at the end of the building so that once the passengers clear security they have a place. Then you have to find a place on the apron for the aircraft, which would need its own secure area because we are a general aviation airport and we built the infrastructure to accommodate general aviation.’
“If you put airline service right smack in the middle of your apron, you have basically bisected one half of aviation from the other,” he continued. “If you cut general aviation right in half, when that airplane is parked there and passengers are loading up on foot at the ramp—not a jetway—you’ve basically isolated the south end of the airport from the north end and vice versa, and it’s simply not the most efficient way of doing things. We could throw more money into this building to make airline service work, but which service? How much service can we accommodate out of this building? How limited is it? How many flights a day? At Gainesville (Regional Airport), they barely do 20 flights a day in and out; those are the operations (take-offs and landings).”
A FISCALLY RESPONSIBLE TRANSITION
In addition to infrastructure tweaks, Grow emphasized the necessity of economic viability when it comes to the possibility of offering commercial service at OIA.
“Having the right airline service is just as important as having a financially successful airline service,” Grow said. “So, you must have connectivity. You’ve got to be able to take a person from Ocala and bring them to another airport where they can connect and go anywhere in the world. We don’t need to be the hub, but we need to be a spoke in the hub-and-spoke system. That’s difficult to figure out. If you look at a map of Florida, put Ocala in the middle and look at all the commercial airports that are surrounding Ocala, you can see they are typically no more than two hours away. Jacksonville is right on the cusp; St. Augustine had commercial service and is trying again; Daytona Beach; Orlando Sanford; Orlando International; Lakeland, which has had airline service on and off; Tampa International; Tampa Clearwater; and Gainesville.
“There are nine commercial airports within about a two-hour drive from Ocala,” he added. “So, you can fly anywhere in the world within a two-hour drive time from Ocala. What market segment is being underserved by any of these nine airports that still compete with the convenience of a two-hour drivetime?”
POPULATION GROWTH AND TRAFFIC CONGESTION ON ROADWAYS
While Ocala residents have numerous options for commercial air travel, the trend of increasing congestion on the roadways due to population growth in Florida could also impact the need for commercial airline service out of Ocala, providing travelers a practical alternative.
“Traffic on the interstate is getting worse and worse,” Grow stated. “Going back to my statement about the nine airports within a two-hour drive time, it could get to a point where driving just isn’t worth it. You’re going to risk life and limb on (Florida’s) Turnpike, risk delays on the road, and possibly miss your flight. It is just a given. The more and more that happens, and the longer the delays and the longer it takes to drive to Orlando, it’s just going to bring more opportunities for airlines to expand their business model. It will probably go that way at some point, it makes the business model more viable, and the more that happens the more that people in this area will want it.
“It just has to be built in the right way,” he continued. “The infrastructure needs to be perfect. We need to be able to accommodate both types of aviation (general and commercial) and not just adequately but expertly. Assuming that we can get the apron and the west-side improvements built, I think we could accommodate the CEP’s five-year goal. I think we could have the infrastructure in place in five years. Our improvements are already justified on the general aviation side, so I get why the CEP went down that road and made it a goal. I understand it. I know the business traffic in and out of here would love to see airline service. I think it would augment Ocala, but it must be fiscally responsible and a win for all parties involved, and it can’t take away from the general aviation side.”
While airports have significant social and economic benefits to the cities they serve, there are other impacts on the surrounding environment, including noise disturbance stemming from the planes, as well as airport operations.
“Environmental impacts are real,” Grow said. “Noise is an environmental impact. Noise is subjective. Some people are bothered by airplanes, some people are bothered by the noise of airplanes, and some are bothered by them flying over their homes. It could be as quiet as can be, but the mere fact that it is over their property is bothersome to some people. So, there is a myriad of issues that we will have to overcome with some outreach.
“And what is the expectation of daily flights out of Ocala? Who knows? Right now, it is all speculation at this point because no airline has proposed anything,” Grow added. “Are 20 flights a day too many? We will probably do 65,000 operations this year (one operation is one landing or one takeoff and a touch-and-go—used in training—would be considered two operations). That’s 182 operations a day here, so what would another 20, if that is a magic number, do by adding in airline service? Adding 20 flights a day to 182, would anyone even notice that?”
Clearly, OIA could offer commercial airline service at some point in the future, but Grow insists that smart planning is key to ensuring success if and when that time does come.
“With smart infrastructure and smart planning, we can be successful at both,” Grow said. “But it will take perseverance and patience to wait for that opportunity to present itself. We’re not conducting any (research) studies or heat-mapping on where people may or may not be flying to and from. We’re still concentrating on trying to be the best general aviation airport that we can be, and that is the direction from the city council. No change was provided at the workshop, so we’re going to keep doing what we do best.”