Writer: Max Crampton-Thomas
2 min read February 2021 — Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport (FXE) is a one of the nation’s busiest general aviation airports in the country, located within the city limits of Fort Lauderdale, in Broward County. Airport Manager Rufus James spoke with Invest: about the state of affairs at FXE, which appears better than expected in the wake of the pandemic and continued investment with new developments and redevelopment of hangars by airport tenants realizing the potential of new business opportunities.
What were some of your takeaways from the past year?
We were going into the first quarter having exceeded the previous-year monthly operations. One of the things an airport looks at to determine its performance is the number of airplane landings and takeoffs. By the middle of March, we thought we would not even beat 2019’s number. Thankfully, we managed and experienced an 8% increase for March 2020 operations. In April, we experienced a 38% decrease in operations during the pandemic, and despite an increase in operations for May 2020, that increase was still 19% less than the previous year. In June, traffic certainly returned, and we experienced an increase of 26% more operations than June of 2019. Overall, the calendar year operations (2019 versus 2020) ended practically even with a very minimal deficit of .02 fewer operations (44 fewer takeoffs and landings), which is remarkable from a global perspective. International travel was the missing piece from our operations count. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection operates a modern passenger and aircraft clearing facility at the airport, and we also track this activity. International travel has not rebounded as quickly, which resulted in the overall annual decline of 30% in international arrivals at FXE. However, we have noticed steady progress month to month with January 2021 experiencing an 11% increase compared to January 2020.
How did you continue to promote your services and draw new customers?
We reached out to the businesses and tenants that operate throughout the airport and wanted to ensure that they were aware the airport was open for business as usual. We also participated on several panels with industry associations to discuss what other aviation operators were experiencing and how we could pivot as an industry in the general aviation sector to attract new business. This was an opportunity to introduce or reintroduce high-net-worth individuals who traveled commercially to private aircraft charter operations. Business aircraft charter operators realized they could not sit and wait for the pandemic to pass, so in order to attract those clients to private charter, they created a proposal that was presented to illustrate that private air charter was affordable, convenient and most importantly, very safe even in the middle of a pandemic. These business owners were able to pivot quickly and as a result, they were able to attract new clients for the long term.
How do you expect the Biden administration to affect your operations?
Private aircraft charter is a business tool for most of the operators and users, so the general aviation industry should not be impacted. I would like to believe that general aviation will continue to thrive as companies consider the possibility of private charter or investing in the purchase or lease of a business aircraft, which will provide for efficient, flexible, safe and secure travel to destinations across the country and throughout the world. Additionally, this will afford the employees of those businesses to plan and work productively during the flight to their destination.
What challenges did the pandemic introduce for your airport?
The decline in activity from international travel is one of the few challenges for the airport. We do not charge landing fees for arriving aircraft but do collect a fuel flowage fee from the airport’s tenants who sell fuel to aircraft operators. Aircraft fuel sales for most general aviation airports is a revenue source and, in some instances, that is important for smaller airports with fixed based operators. Although the operations have returned to normal, most of it has been domestic operations. The annual fuel flowage indicators are running parallel with international activity and are trending at a 30% decline for 2020. We expect international activity to continue trending positively, which will ensure fuel revenues return to normal.
How are you working with the public or private sector to promote Fort Lauderdale?
Our mission is to attract business to the area, help those businesses prosper and be a benefit to the community. We’re one of only a few general aviation airports in South Florida that offers U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) services for aircraft as well as the local boater program for boat operators. In 2015, a state-of-the-art facility was constructed, which significantly enhanced airport operations, optimized speed and efficiency, and dramatically improved service delivery, all of which greatly benefited the corporate and recreational travelers who arrive from around the globe. The CBP facility is equipped with global entry kiosks and passport control kiosks for passenger processing similar to what is found at the international airports. We were also able to extend CBP operating hours until midnight to accommodate business aircraft and air ambulance flights operating from foreign countries, including Latin American.
What is your outlook for the aviation industry and for the airport in the next 12-18 months?
We expect continued and consistent growth. The general aviation community is made up of individuals with a pioneering spirit, and within the next 12-18 months, business aviation will continue a positive trend. We realize we’re not out of the woods yet but we’re encouraged by the proactiveness of our tenants in attracting new business. In the longer term, we can look forward to further development of the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) market and its integration into the general aviation industry.
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