General Aviation taking off after pandemic slump
When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in the United States, it brought aviation to a halt. With little interest in travel and vacations, commercial aviation has been slow to return even though TPA is doing better than many airports around the country. The crisis also impacted general aviation, a network of private owners and small businesses whose future seemed especially uncertain.
“It’s been a real rollercoaster. We went from a vibrant business with record fuel sales, to a screeching halt,” said Sara Behnke, General Aviation Business and Administration Manager. “Everything just stopped. Flight schools shut down and fuel sales plummeted. It was eerie. We were all scared.”
Then suddenly, May rolled around and brought some glimmers of hope. The sound of small aircraft engines returned to the skies. The students returned, and so did the fuel sales.
“It was amazing. You could see the joy on the faces of the students, tenants, everyone at the airport,” said Behnke. “We remain cautious, but it’s hard not to feel a real sense of relief and marvel at the resiliency of the industry.”
But it’s more than just a return to operations. Even during the slowdown, new businesses resumed plans to start up or expand their business at the GA airports.
At Peter O. Knight, Sarasota Avionics is building a new hangar and ICON Aviation, already a tenant at Peter O. Knight, is expanding their operations and moving to the airport from offices in downtown Tampa to be closer to the airfield. The hangar will sit on a prime spot with access to the new Taxiway G. Behnke says these changes are often a catalyst for even more expansion and private development.
“We see this happen with new construction, it’s almost a domino effect. One company builds and others see the advantages and want to build as well. But at Peter O. Knight new space is extremely limited. It could go very fast,” she said.
Arguably the biggest success story throughout the pandemic has been Plant City Airport.
“What was once a sleepy little hometown airfield is thriving and suddenly almost unrecognizable, and the credit goes to the FBO, Atlas Aviation,” said Behnke. “They’ve done a great job recruiting new tenants and even bringing back some who left.”
New tenants include Fly High, LLC a seller and manufacturer of aircraft as well as flight training moved into office space. The Airport also welcomed Fly Venture, helicopter flight training and tour operator who set up shop at both Plant City and Peter O. Knight.
Behnke says that while business is slowly resuming to pre-COVID levels, a sense of caution remains.
“We stay in contact daily and communicate regularly. We are a tight-knit community and will all do what it takes to get through this.”