Lakeland Linder in active conversation with commercial airlines

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LAKELAND — Lakeland Linder International Airport could benefit from the airline industry’s shake-up by COVID.

Lakeland City Manager Shawn Sherrouse told commissioners on Monday that Kris Hallstrand, acting manager of Lakeland Linder International Airport, had recently signed a nondisclosure agreement related to ongoing negotiations to bring commercial air service in the city.

“We’re engaged in conversations where there’s renewed interest in certain airlines that are growing,” Sherrouse said. “Lakeland could definitely be in their market.”

Sherrouse didn’t drop the name or give any hints about any particular airline.

“It probably won’t be as strong as we initially hoped, but it will provide some of the shoehorn for future opportunities,” Mayor Bill Mutz said.

The commission unanimously approved a contract Monday with Volaire Aviation Inc., a third-party provider, to provide assistance in establishing passenger air service to Lakeland. The initial deal runs through September and will cost $37,500.

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Polk County Tourism and Sports Marketing offered to pay half the cost by reimbursing the city $18,750.

“It’s the absolute best opportunity for us to keep moving forward on this,” Mutz said.

The city first hired Volaire in August 2018 to help bring passenger service to Lakeland Linder Airport. Hallstrand said the company’s medium-sized city consultant has about 75 clients.

Commissioner Chad McLeod asked if the city has made any progress working with Volaire over the past four years and how the process will be different going forward.

Hallstrand said Volaire laid the groundwork to set up commercial service as part of its 2018 deal with the city.

“[Volaire] did all the studies to see where the problem was, who is using which airlines to fly to which destinations,” she said. “They did all the legwork in this contract, which is a lot more money than this contract. We are working on this background to move forward.”

In 2019, former airport manager Gene Conrad was trying to woo American Airlines as a lead candidate. The company planned to add 10 to 11 gates in Charlotte, North Carolina. Conrad had spoken to US officials of two to three flights a day on a 70-90 seat plane from Lakeland to Charlotte, where passengers could connect to flights across the country.

No deal was confirmed until the COVID pandemic hit in early 2020.

It was difficult to entice a passenger airline to fly to Lakeland Linder and maintain operations. The city has had at least five commuter air services, most recently Direct Air.

Direct Air, a public charter company based in South Carolina, offered niche flights from the airport for nine months ending in March 2012. It went out of business when the company’s carriers failed to get paid, eventually declaring bankruptcy.

Prior to Direct Air, Comair pulled out of Lakeland Linder in 1988. Commuter air service to Orlando lasted three months before Comair officials terminated it.

In the early 1980s, Allegheny provided services to connect to USAir in Orlando.

If Lakeland Linder can strike a deal, it will be the first time the airport has offered commercial air service since 2012, outside of charter flights. The city is responsible for paying Volaire a bonus of up to $50,000 per airline that enters service during the six-month contract. The contract can be extended for up to two additional years.

“A lot of this is driven by active conversations; we have some really viable options.” Sherrouse said.

Sara-Megan Walsh can be reached at swa[email protected] or 863-802-7545. Follow on Twitter @SaraWalshFl.

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