Business aviation in Florida has continued to thrive during the pandemic and its leaders are seeking to drive the sector forward during the next year.
As 2021 starts, most FBOs and business aviation companies across the world are still counting the cost of Covid-19. With new guidance and travel restrictions introduced sometimes on a daily basis during the pandemic, the aviation industry has been struggling to keep up.
During November 2020, nine months on from the beginning of the pandemic, global business aviation activity was down by 15% compared to the same period in 2019. However, in Florida during November there was 3% more flights than in 2019. The state saw double-digit growth in activity year-on-year in October and has been the busiest state for flights in the USA several times since March.
According to the Central Florida Business Aviation Association (CFBAA), Florida is a major business destination having diversified its economy to include healthcare, space, technology and education.
“Florida is a magnet for industry conferences which are often scheduled during the tourist season, making way for the increasingly popular work-cation,” says Kathryn Creedy, a member of the CFBAA Communications Committee. “Orlando, in Central Florida, is popular for this because it has theme parks, the Kennedy Space Center and an increasing number of rocket launches.”
“The Florida Keys are America’s Caribbean, drawing people to the azure waters to fish, dive, boat and relax in a tropical setting,” adds Marty Hiller, owner of Marathon Aviation, an FBO situated in the Florida Keys.
The CFBAA believes that during the pandemic travelers have gravitated to general and business aviation for a number of reasons including the schedule losses at airlines, the desire to ride out the pandemic in second / vacation homes, and curiosity about being in control of their own flight schedule.
“Real estate is what is driving the growth or at least continued business,” agrees Brad Nojaim, general manager of Reliance Aviation Miami and vice president of the Florida Aviation Business Association (FABA). “I think it’s driven by real estate in the sense that people who have the means to fly privately, are still doing that.
“We’ve seen people that typically go on vacation during the winter months from New York, Connecticut and the northern states coming earlier because they still have second and third homes here in Florida. Activity at Palm Beach, for example, is actually up versus last year.
“At Reliance Aviation we initially saw a big drop off in flight activity, but it has picked back up faster than we anticipated it would.
“Once through the uncertainly in March, April and May, we started to see a little bit of business in June, even though it was hot down here and not a typical time for Northerners to come to Florida. A reason for that is that we are seeing people just wanting to get out of their houses.”
Business aviation passengers are far less exposed door-to-door than when using commercial airlines. It would appear that many of those becoming interested in business aviation are trying to mitigate the risk of becoming infected with Covid-19. “Interest in business aviation was already rising thanks to companies such as Wheels Up expanding the market. This has largely been driven by the airline hassle factor,” explains Creedy.
With a rise in interest for flying privately to Florida, during September seemed the perfect opportunity for Marathon Aviation to open its new luxury FBO and hangar complex in the Florida Keys.
It had been three years to the month since Hurricane Irma struck the Florida Keys. “We were in the planning stages at that time to construct a new FBO and hangar,” explains Hiller. “The hurricane destroyed our existing Marathon Jet Center hangar and FBO facility. The storm also slowed down our ability to rebuild due to the residents’ significant need to receive permits and reconstruct damaged homes.”
The new 3,000 square foot FBO facility has been inspired by Ernest Hemingway and offers VVIP luxuries, including relaxation and leisure areas complete with a recreation table and outdoor viewing decks. The building is designed with a modern Key West-aesthetic and also features a spacious kitchen and café area. The 12,000 square foot hangar featuring 28ft doors is able to accommodate all aircraft up to a G650 and offers a convenient location for easy taxiway, runway and highway access.
The opening of new FBO facilities during a global pandemic highlights the popularity of the state as a business aviation destination. “The three largest business aviation markets by fuel volume are California, Florida, and Texas,” explains Hiller. “Among these three, Florida has the best balance of weather, favorable business climate, and growing vacation travel. The growth of remote working could also accelerate Florida’s general aviation demand.”
According to the CFBAA, business travelers cite a number of annoyances responsible for pushing many frequent flyers away from commercial flights. Numerous fees, delays for weather or crew reasons and crowded airports are among the top reasons.
“Managers are seeing the value proposition of business aviation when it comes to efficiency of time and the growing clamor of millennials for increased work / life balance. Employee satisfaction is now a big driver for retention in corporate America,” says Creedy. “Many studies show that companies which use business aviation are far more successful than companies that don’t.”
“We don’t have the international travel at the moment in South Florida that we normally enjoy,” comments Nojaim. “But we are seeing the return of domestic travel again, most of the people that are coming here are staying for an extended period of time.
“We stayed open throughout the entire Covid-19 pandemic as we are considered an essential business.
We supply fuel to Miami-Dade Police and Fire Rescue for their helicopters.
“April was the toughest time for us, there wasn’t much going on. We got through those first very challenging months though. Now, I think that with all of the information and knowledge that we have, everyone’s a bit more comfortable with traveling.”
Coping with Covid
Business aviation has adopted all the sanitation technologies and practices recommended by public health officials. However according to Creedy, Florida did take a slightly different approach to most states which may partly explain the growth in business activity that the state has seen during the pandemic.
“Florida did not adopt the most stringent quarantine procedures, nor did it mandate masks. As a result, it has been a hot spot for Covid-19 cases,” says Creedy. “Travelers need to be aware of the rates of infection when they are planning a visit. When choosing a destination travelers must also be aware of local medical capabilities as part of proper planning.”
According to the CFBAA, business aviation operators have adopted many of the same sanitation technologies as the airlines in both the aircraft and FBOs. Creedy says, “The main challenge of pandemic travel is the restrictions imposed by destination localities, such as pre-flight testing and quarantine requirements. The fact these are constantly changing prompts trips to be cancelled, increasing frustration and reducing travelers’ desire to get back on the road.”
With viable vaccinations finally being rolled out it is hoped that Florida’s busiest season will see continued growth over the next few months. “The vaccine isn’t going to reach the whole population for a while yet. So, I think we need to stay diligent in our efforts,” says Nojaim.
“It’s a little hard to say what we should really expect, but at least in certain markets in Florida, it’s very possible we may see an uptick during the busy season. We haven’t yet experienced that bump at Reliance Aviation, we’re still depressed on our numbers from where we were last year. But we’re hopeful that the busy season will show us some brighter moments.
“If you think about all the other businesses that we interact with — the rental car companies, the hotels, the restaurants – when our business is down they are effected. General aviation has a huge impact on the greater community, one that is overlooked at times.”
“Overall, Florida is faring better than most regions,” says Hiller. “The Covid-19 virus appears to have significantly impacted areas where travel was primarily for business reasons. Although early on in the Covid-19 pandemic, we did witness a drop off in volume, mostly in April. But since that time, our business has returned.
“Florida will continue to lead the business aviation sector as a key business and leisure destination. Within Florida, locations like Key West, Naples, and the Miami markets will continue to grow in their share of the aviation spend.”
“At the FABA we’re hoping that we can make Florida the aviation state. We want to continue to push aviation. We’re really focused on letting people know just how big a role Florida plays in the aeronautical industry,” adds Nojaim.
“One thing is crystal clear,” says Creedy. “The pandemic has driven and increased interest and experimentation with general and business aviation, which increases appreciation of its benefits. The fact this is happening during an economic downturn tells us something of what we may see in the future.”