Destination Airport: Orlando, Florida

 - July 8, 2008, 11:32 AM

Orlando, Fla. is becoming a major hub and resource center for corporate aviation, and for good reason. Beyond Wichita, the greater Orlando area has one of the highest concentrations of corporate aircraft crew initial and recurrent training centers and aircraft maintenance facilities. Overall, it has one of the denser concentrations of top-notch FBOs in the continental U.S.

From getting type-rated in a Citation to going inverted in a World War II-vintage
P-51 Mustang to turning green in a “no motion” Air Tractor simulator, Orlando offers something for virtually every pilot and in many ways has become corporate aviation’s Disney World. The montage of local maintenance facilities enables many flight departments to schedule their pilot and technician training concurrent with significant aircraft maintenance all at the same place. Three large airports–Orlando International, Orlando Executive and Kissimmee–are located within a 15-mile radius of Orlando’s Orange County Convention Center. Farther north, Sanford provides a secondary international gateway.

These natural synergies were among the factors that led fractional-share company NetJets to consider moving its operations headquarters to the city recently. Ultimately, NetJets did not make the move, but many others have, including NBAA, which has made Orlando a frequent venue for its mammoth annual convention, to be held there this year from October 6 to 8.

Other major players such as Cessna, FlightSafety and SimCom have established permanent and thriving encampments.

Orlando International Airport

From 1962 to 1974, MCO was transformed from an active U.S. Air Force base. Since then, it has become the 13th busiest commercial U.S. airport. The joint operating agreement between the Air Force and Orlando became a model for other airports across the country, but ultimately the USAF decided to re-deploy elsewhere
its Strategic Air Command assets–B-52 bombers, tankers and early-warning aircraft–located at what was then known as McCoy AFB. The commercial use of McCoy was spurred by two factors: the advent of jet aircraft and their longer runway requirements; and the plans of cartoon mogul Walt Disney to build Disney World. As Central Florida’s population subsequently exploded, corporate aviation, and the infrastructure to support it, grew throughout the region.

Cessna established the Orlando Citation Service Center in 1983. The Orlando center has a large ramp with underground refueling facilities, classrooms, paint room, wash bays and inventory storage. It is the second largest Citation Service Center in the country (Wichita is the largest), with nearly 250 employees and a throughput of more than 70 airplanes per week.

FlightSafety’s Orlando Learning Center is located across the street, and it is not uncommon for a flight crew to drop their Citation off at Cessna’s service center and then head over to FlightSafety International (FSI) for recurrent training.

FSI is one of two large training companies based near Orlando International. SimCom is the other. It operates from two Orlando campuses, one on the airport’s north side and the other between MCO and the convention center.

At MCO Signature and Galaxy serve corporate aviation. All Signatures are comparatively plush and the Signature-MCO does not disappoint. In sharp contrast–for now–Galaxy is located in a musty-smelling double-wide, but is scheduled to move into new, state-of-the-art digs around the end of next month. Jet-A at MCO, as you might expect, is the region’s priciest.

Orlando Executive Airport

Before MCO came of age in the 1960s, the Orlando Municipal Airport, aka “Herndon,” had been Orlando’s main commercial airport since 1928. That airport was subsequently renamed Orlando Executive (ORL). Since 1951, the Showalter family has been a fixture there and continues to operate one of two FBOs on the field. Showalter Flying Service also is the host FBO for this year’s NBAA static display. In an age of chain FBOs, Showalter’s family-run, single locale shop is something of an anachronism, yet it handles the biggest iron and most complex requests with aplomb.

During the convention, the facility becomes a 24/7 operation, parking the static display aircraft, pumping 150,000 gallons of jet-A and bringing in extra fuel trucks. Showalter also supplements its ice machine with a semi-trailer full of ice, adds 14 line staff and three catering companies and rents more than 500 cars. Aircraft are restacked constantly during the night by departure day and time order and identified and separated by a system of color-coded cards placed behind their windshields. The system works so well that Showalter is called upon to handle static line and FBO support at other NBAA events.

Kissimmee Gateway Airport

While Orlando Executive remains the dominant GA airport in the region, new development to the south, at Kissimmee (ISM), aims to change that.

There are four FBOs on the field for 206 based aircraft–most of them piston singles. Fierce competition means low prices–jet-A is available at the airport for $3 a gallon less than the price at MCO. ISM was one of 43 Army airfields established in Florida during World War II, primarily for flight training. Warbirds remain a fixture at ISM, and Stallion 51, the nation’s largest P-51 Mustang training center, is based there.

However, it is the development activities of Ranger Jet Center that could turn ISM into the region’s new hub for corporate aviation. Ranger broke ground on a major expansion last year that will boost its footprint to 86,000 sq ft of office space, 140,000 sq ft of hangars and 700,000 sq ft of ramp and parking. Corporate hangar space is at a premium all over Florida, but especially in the Orlando area.

Sanford International Airport

Another former military airfield, this one 45 minutes to the North in Sanford (SFB), is also poised to play a significant role as the Orlando area continues to grow. The airport already has domestic and international airline service and a growing number of aviation-related businesses on the field, including aircraft completions, avionics and MRO. With a footprint of more than 2,000 acres, there is plenty of room for growth here. Two FBOs currently serve corporate aviation at SFB and one of them, Starport, is among the cushiest to be found anywhere.

Orlando’s importance as a corporate aviation center will continue to grow as facilities at all four of these airports continue to expand and improve.