When the Federal government sequestration policy threatened the viability of the 39th Annual SUN ‘n FUN International Fly-In & Expo, partners within the State of Florida stepped up to a new challenge. Proceeds from the annual event in Lakeland have historically benefitted students and the future of aviation. That stirred a high level of interest not only in the government but in the private sector. Although SUN ‘n FUN is Florida’s largest convention and has a $64m economic impact on the I-4 corridor, it has never been supported with state involvement until this year. A presentation in Washington by Congressman Dennis Ross and visits to Lakeland Linder Regional Airport by Senator Bill Nelson (intimately familiar with the enormous contribution of the 39 year event for Florida) initiated a number of discussions in the aviation, tourism and education industries. Florida and local community partners elevated their on-going support to a level that made the event memorable for all.
The number one priority of organizers and participants was safety. To that end, the first concern was to have qualified air traffic controllers for a projected 10,000 air traffic movements in the one week when Lakeland would become the busiest airport in the world. Anticipating a $284,000 cost for Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Air Traffic Controllers, the City of Lakeland, Lakeland Linder Regional Airport and Visit Central Florida committed to find additional funding to assure a seamless and safe event for all involved. The second concern was to safeguard the funding for students in programs at the Central Florida Aerospace Academy, a Polk County Schools public workforce academy. That target included the protection of funding for year round education programs and scholarships, the renovation of the FedEx Boeing 727 from a cargo plane to a classroom, and the transition of the Florida Air Museum into an aviation-based learning center with interactive equipment, incorporating the rich history found on the SUN ‘n FUN grounds. The underlying message in all the discussions was customer service for guests at the event. “How May I Help You” remained the theme despite significant budget cuts by all Chairmen and staff in response to new expenses.
A direct result of the government backing away from involvement in a community event was the offering of a new Presenting Sponsorship from the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association. More than 60 sponsors and nearly 500 exhibitors and vendors opened the aviation season at SUN ‘n FUN. In addition, Lakeland’s home Jet Team, The Black Diamonds, workshops, seminars, the Commemorative Air Force, EAA’s 60th Anniversary, Air America presentations and the 70th Anniversary celebration of the WASPs added to the guest’s opportunities. Thirty-six airshow teams and performers entertained audiences daily. Many types of Light Sport and Ultralight aircraft were displayed on the 2,000 acres that included the newly designed Paradise City. Aircraft arrived and departed on the grass runway throughout each day – setting a one day record of 600 air traffic movements. Two evening airshows illuminated the skies with brilliantly choreographed movements.
Not everyone was seeking the thrills of a military jet team. Sequestration caused organizers to cancel the appearance of the US Air Force Thunderbirds. Despite that, cadets and students from across the United States, Norway, the United Kingdom and the Islands of the Bahamas not only visited but also worked the event in a number of capacities as volunteers. Learning from the experts at SUN ‘n FUN was evident as a Jet Blue airbus arrived with more than 90 students and mentors. They attended workshops and forums in preparation for their activities in the fall of 2013 to build a plane and fly it to SUN ‘n FUN in 2014.
As the effects of the government sequestration hit all aspects of the local economy, attendance at the event was certainly threatened. Families in jeopardy of down-sizing and/or layoffs may not have considered a trip to a convention as a high priority budget item. But, despite the anticipated threats, all of the extra discussions and all of the revised budget plans, organizers brought locals and guests from out of town to a stunning aviation week. Attendance estimated at 150,000 was 9% less than an eleven year average and paralleled 2009 when there was no military jet team for the week and the economy was at a low. Most importantly, for the second year in a row, there were no accidents or incidents. Exhibitors were pleased with sales. Foreign visitors were hosted and more than 450 media from around the world had an opportunity to share new memories. And, best of all, students are still working on careers that offer “A Brighter Future through Aviation.”