Ocala Airport taking off again

Airport officials say flights picking up as pandemic wanes

[Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2020.

The friendly skies may have seemed a little less busy this spring.

Ocala International Airport experienced a sharp drop in flights in the immediate months following the pandemic lockdown, said Matt Grow, director of Ocala International Airport.

“Especially in the April and May timeframe, our fuel sales and the corresponding operations took a hit,” said Grow. “But we’re pretty close to normal right now. Last month (August), we had a big decrease in comparison to August of 2019, where we had a couple of extraordinary events that really boosted our numbers.”

However, the airport demonstrated its resiliency and appears poised to return to its previous levels, said Grow.

There are a number of industries who benefit greatly by the 1,50- acre facility’s presence, and they play a role in the airport’s operations per year.

“Ever since the recession back in ’09, the community has really diversified itself as what really drives the economy,” said Grow. “The equine industry is obviously one of the bigger ones. We’re well-diverse; logistics, transportation, warehousing, manufacturing, all of those different areas that this airport can support by private air travel that comes and goes. While there were short-term effects, there’s nothing really long-standing.”

Corporate travel and private travel both are seeing sharp increase,  so people who had the financial resources to charge an entire airplane are discovering that luxury and convenience, and it’s becoming more commonplace, said Grow.

“Our town is more of a destination town, so you’re coming to Ocala because you have business to do in Ocala,” said Grow. “So, we’re seeing a little bit of an increase in those jet type operations. But when you look at other airports like a Fort Myers or some of the other larger corporate airports in south Florida, their corporate charter traffic is incredible. It’s just going through the roof.”

General aviation airports that don’t have scheduled airlines are seeing a real increase in their corporate travel, said Grow.

“We’ve seen a little bit of that here,” he said.

People are adjusting to what has social distancing guidelines.

“People are masked up when they walk through the terminal,” said Grow. “Even the rental car customers are all masked up, and the majority of their business isn’t related to the airport operations. We have hand sanitizer all over the place. Our cleaning bill was adjusted a little bit. We were sanitizing the seats daily during the spring.”

A recent nationwide sojourn allowed Grow to see how different states were coping with the pandemic.

“I just got back from a three-week road trip,” said Grow. “Some towns had mandates, some governors had mandates and others did not.”

However, the steepest decreases were seen during the spring, when the first phase of the lockdown suggested the greatest period of adjustment and deeper restrictions were in place.

“There were two months where Hertz, Avis and Enterprise basically parked their cars because no one was renting anything,” said Grow. “We get a percentage off their business, so if they do good, we do good. If they do bad, we do bad. We just recently renegotiated those rates, so while those fees that we were getting went down compared to what we were getting last year, we’re still above it. We’re holding our own.”

The Ocala International Airport has been a model of stability since the pandemic began to transform air travel.

“We still have all our staff,” said Grow. “In fact, we didn’t lay off anybody throughout the city related to COVID. We pride ourselves on our staff here at the airport. It’s a small staff, and we’re close-knit. They work alone and unsupervised. There’s an extreme amount of autonomy.”

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