Executive Decisions

Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport is an important economic force thanks to what happens both on and off the airfield. Now leaders are considering how best to keep it modern and competitive.

By: 

Mike Seemuth

Published date: 

Jan. 28, 2016

TOWER.jpgMany Broward County residents are reminded of the presence of Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport only when they see planes and jets zooming above its tucked-away location. Unlike Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, plainly visible from Interstate 95 and Interstate 595, Executive has a more obscure location west of I-95, wedged between Commercial Boulevard and Cypress Creek Road.

The obscurity suits the occasional celebrity who passes through Executive. “We’ve had the likes of Bill Clinton come through here,” Executive manager Rufus James says. “We’ve had artists and entertainers come through.”

Corporate big shots are also regular sights at Executive, also known by its government-designated code name FXE. Several leading employers are located just minutes from the airport, which is one of South Florida’s busiest hubs for private aircraft traffic. 

“You’ve got Citrix. You’ve got Microsoft. That Andrews corridor in Cypress Creek, you’ve got some big firms there. On the south side of the airport, there are some others,” James says. “As the economy has gotten better, we now have some of those corporate customers back leasing jets, as opposed to flying commercially.”

BANYAN UP CLOSE.jpgOne big corporation, Toyota distributor JM Family Enterprises, has a corporate flight department and a company-owned fleet of four jets at Executive, which usually carry executives to cities in the Southeast such as Jacksonville and Atlanta. “Every morning, you will see about three or four of them take off. They’ll come back around 11 o’clock. And at around 4 o’clock, you’ll see them take off again to get those folks back home,” James says. “Their motto is, there’s no reason why an employee should not be at home at night having dinner with their family.”

In addition to outbound executives, inbound customers also use Executive to stop and shop in South Florida for big-ticket items. “Alpine Jaguar in Fort Lauderdale, the largest Jaguar dealership in the world, has a huge customer base that comes out of that airport,” says Cary Goldberg, co-owner of Diversified Realty Development in Fort Lauderdale and president of Envision Uptown Inc., a non-profit organization trying to reshape development in the Cypress Creek area. Goldberg says the airport delivers an economic wallop unparalleled in Cypress Creek and citywide: “FXE is really the 800-pound gorilla.”

The gorilla’s still growing. Executive isn’t just an important airport, it’s a major landowner in the Cypress Creek area - and plans call for hangar expansion, more businesses and possibly residential developments. If the City of Fort Lauderdale gets its way, there will even be a massive waterpark next to the airport. Other potential changes could include longer runways, though more questions surround that.

GIFT SHOP.jpgEven without anything new, Executive is a money machine. It has a local economic impact estimated at $839 million a year, including a $203 million annual payroll for 5,178 employees of fixed-base operators that refuel aircraft, repair and maintenance shops, and other assorted airport tenants, including the popular Jet Runway Café along the south side of the airfield. Indeed, the airport’s dominant source of revenue is property leased by non-aviation enterprises. “Two-thirds of our revenue is generated from non-aviation leases,” James says.

There are more aircraft landings at Miami Executive Airport in southern Miami-Dade County, which replaced FXE in 2012 as the busiest airport in South Florida by number of landings. Both are well ahead of the tri-county area’s three major international airports, where scheduled carriers operate larger aircraft and make fewer landings.

But Executive has a much bigger economic impact than its Miami counterpart because it owns and leases so much land around its airfield, including the ground beneath Fort Lauderdale Stadium, the old minor league and spring training ballpark that now sits mostly empty, and Lockhart Stadium, home of the Fort Lauderdale Strikers soccer team. Executive also leases the ground beneath multiple nearby commercial properties to their owners.

“FXE, with all the commercial properties around it, the stadiums and everything, their economic impact is almost three times as much as ours,” says Chris McArthur, manager of Miami Executive Airport, which changed its name from Kendall-Tamiami Airport in 2014. “They’ve got more buildings and they’ve got all that commercial property.”

But Fort Lauderdale Executive has limited space for aviation-related expansion. “If they had more land at FXE, they could probably do more,” McArthur says. For example, “if they got rid of the stadiums … they could probably build more hangars.”

FXE has more hangars in the pipeline that will be built on what land remains along the airfield. 

A prominent company at Executive called Windsor Group broke ground in October on a $13-million project to build two hangars, each spanning 20,000 square feet, plus 5,500 square feet of adjoining office space and a 155,000-square-foot ramp expansion, all scheduled for completion in mid-2016. In a subsequent phase of the development, Windsor will build a 24,000-square-foot terminal for passengers and pilots, scheduled to open in 2017. 

Windsor has steadily expanded its presence at Executive since the company’s charter jet service started operating there in 2010. In 2011, Windsor’s aircraft maintenance arm, Mach – 1 Jet Services, set up shop at Executive. And since 2013, a Windsor-owned fixed-base operator called W Aviation has been refueling aircraft in the northwest corner of the airport, where the company has started building new hangars and offices. 

The construction project was prompted by “client demand for hangar [space] in the area, an assessment of the overall international business growth in South Florida, along with the need for us to hangar our existing charter fleet,” Windsor spokeswoman Jennifer Lee Colon said in an email exchange.

And in late 2015, the Fort Lauderdale City Commission agreed to lease land on the north side of the city-owned Executive to Sheltair, which plans to build new hangars there. The city “completed a lease agreement with Sheltair to take the final 17 acres of aviation property [at Executive] for additional hangars on the airfield,” says Scott Allen, a Fort Lauderdale-based first vice president of commercial real estate brokerage firm CBRE, which the airport retained to market its aviation and non-aviation properties. 

The 17 acres on the north side of the airport encompasses a familiar sight along Cypress Creek Road, “the former Aero Toy Store site. That is going to go away,” Allen says. The lease with Sheltair also covers two vacant parcels that “have never been developed. But due to the recent demand and increased traffic in private aviation, the demand has warranted additional hangar space.”

Goldberg, the developer who heads neighborhood improvement group Envision Uptown Inc., hailed the project. “Sheltair’s doing an expansion now on the Cypress Creek side [of the airport], which is great, because we want the streetscape to get changed,” he says. “It looks good on one side of the road, but you need both sides to look good.”

4_RUFUS JAMES 022m.jpgSsssh, Keep It Down

In recent years, the airport has also seen improvements to its basic infrastructure. Among other milestones, the airport’s current control tower became operational in November 2014 and replaced a badly outdated predecessor. U.S. Customs and Border Protection began doing its thing from a handsome new building in October and extended its closing time at the airport from 9 p.m. to midnight. James got promoted to manager last October, eighteen months after his predecessor, Clara Bennett, quit the job to become manager of the Boca Raton Airport.

Other voices from residential communities near the municipal airport express anger over aircraft noise. On average, the airport gets 100 telephone calls per month to complain about aircraft noise. But the situation used to be much worse. Phoned-in noise complaints peaked at 800 per month before Executive adopted a comprehensive noise abatement program, which is part of the legacy of Bennett, who started working at Executive as a noise abatement officer before rising to the top position. Under her leadership, “there was a lot of outreach to the homeowner associations in surrounding cities” such as Oakland Park and Wilton Manors, James says.

Further community outreach may be needed to pave the way for a runway-capacity increase at Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport. In an email exchange, city spokesman Matt Little reported Fort Lauderdale is in the early stages of trying to amend a 1981 inter-city agreement with the City of Tamarac that limits the maximum aircraft takeoff weight of 90,000 pounds at Executive, which would allow larger aircraft to land there. “We are currently working with the City of Tamarac to have the weight-bearing capacity lifted to accommodate aircraft to operate more efficiently,” Little wrote. Tamarac City Commissioner Pamela Bushnell, a non-voting member of the advisory board of Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport, declined an interview request, saying by email that “it’s just too early in the process for anyone from Tamarac to discuss.”

Brazilian-born Paulo Krausche, owner of Executive-based charter flight operator Aeroconnection, would be content if Executive kept its aircraft weight limit unchanged. “The big jets cannot land there, and that’s a good thing; they all go to Fort Lauderdale International.” But he believes if the City of Fort Lauderdale really wants to remove the weight limit, Tamarac will go along, perhaps kicking and screaming.

He sees growth potential for his business at Executive. Aeroconnection charges $5,000 for a round trip in his cabin-class Piper Chieftan, a two-engine airplane, from FXE to island destinations throughout the Bahamas. Krausche, who pilots the Piper, also offers domestic flights. For example, “I have a very good client in Ocean Reef who I flew to New Smyrna Beach for Thanksgiving and back for $8000,” he says. His company buys fuel from Banyan Air Service at FXE, and his passengers arrive and depart via Banyan’s terminal there.

In December, Aeroconnection was preparing to add a second pilot and a second airplane, a Piper Seneca V, to its operation. “My clients are pretty much house owners in the Bahamas, boat owners that take their boats over there,” Krausche says. “I fly for a few corporates around South Florida … lawyers, construction companies, some grocery distributors.”

Runway Envy

Some aviation tenants at FXE have looked elsewhere to grow, however. Banyan Air Service, a fixed-base operator at Executive, planned to expand at the Opa-locka airport in north Miami-Dade County. Many jet setters at Executive pass through a comfy passenger terminal at Opa-locka operated by Banyan Air Service, a tenant of Sheltair and a longtime operator at the airport. Banyan is one of five fixed-base operators at the airport that provide aircraft refueling and related services, including maintenance and repair work.

James, the airport manager, praises Don Campion, the president and owner of Banyan, as a self-made success who “started out of the trunk of his car as a mechanic,” and today, “his operation is first-class.” Among other accomplishments at Banyan, aircraft operators from certain foreign countries who buy their maintenance service from Banyan can avoid regulatory inspection of their aircraft when they return to Latin America or the Caribbean. James says Campion “has been able to establish relationships with countries in Latin America and the Caribbean where, once it has Banyan’s stamp, it doesn’t have to go back to that country’s ‘FAA’ branch of inspection. He’s done a lot for the airport in terms of bringing work to the airport.”

Campion also has tried to bring work south of the county border. Banyan planned to expand at Miami Opa-Locka Executive Airport by building aircraft hangars and other facilities there with the help of Miami-based real estate development firm CPF Investment Group. The Banyan expansion plan at the Opa-locka airport has stalled but still could proceed if either a state or local grant materializes to cover the cost of an aircraft taxiway, says Ernie Cambo, principal of CPF Investment.

So why did Campion want his Executive-based company to do business at the Opa-locka airport? “Longer runways,” Cambo says, referring to the 8,000-foot runway at Opa-locka, long enough for the largest jets. The longer of the two runways at Executive is 6,000 feet, long enough for medium-size jets but not for heavier aircraft such as the Gulfstream V, Boeing 747 and Airbus 330. 

Big private jets that size arrive daily at a fixed-based operation that Sheltair opened two years ago at county-owned Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, where runways extend 8,000 feet.

1_Construction-site-Rufus-Ignacio.JPGA Drag Strip Made Good 

Without those longer runways, Executive is trying to generate more non-aviation revenue as well as aviation revenue with help from CBRE. The real estate brokerage in November had the listing for five airport-owned parcels available for lease, ranging in size from five acres to 30, including several never-developed parcels north of Cypress Creek Road that are hidden behind the existing commercial developments along the north side of the busy arterial road. Other parcels are scattered along Commercial Boulevard.

CBRE, which is marketing the airport’s aviation and non-aviation properties, has attracted prospective developers of industrial properties and apartment buildings to the parcels north of Cypress Creek Road, which are zoned for offices, warehouses and hotels. 

The land isn’t zoned for rental apartments, but “we’re working through that,” says Allen, the Fort Lauderdale-based executive with CBRE, adding that the City of Fort Lauderdale wants to put the vacant airport-owned parcels on the property tax rolls: “That is the goal, to put some additional property tax dollars in the city’s pocket.”

The city certainly could build its tax base further by purchasing land at the site of Fort Lauderdale Stadium and making it available for development of a water park operated by Schlitterbahn, a Texas-based group of water parks. The city has been in talks with Schlitterbahn since 2010 to develop a water park next to Executive. But because the land is owned by the airport, the Federal Aviation Administration had to consent to the development, and never did. 

Last summer, however, the FAA agreed to approve a deal in which the airport would sell the land for the water park for $12.1 million to the City of Fort Lauderdale, which in turn would make the property available to Schlitterbahn. It’s not quite a done deal. In October, Riviera Beach’s Rapids Water Park filed a federal lawsuit to undo the planned airport-land sale to the city for a Schlitterbahn water park, alleging that such a transaction requires competitive bidding.

However the Schlitterbahn saga plays out, self-sustaining Executive will probably continue to contribute to city coffers. Tenants of the airport pay $2.2 million of ad valorem taxes annually, and about $500,000 of this sum goes to the city. 

In addition, the airport itself makes an annual “payment in lieu of taxes,” (or “PILOT”) to the city’s general fund. This payment more than doubled in the last fiscal year to $1.28 million from just under $600,000 in fiscal 2014 and 2013.

FXE has not always been an economic pillar of Fort Lauderdale.

Deeded to the city in 1947 after the U.S. military finished using it as an aerial training field, the property that would become Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport initially served as an unauthorized drag strip and racetrack for about a decade.

In the early 1960s, Fort Lauderdale Stadium became the spring training facility for the New York Yankees and encouraged some of the earliest aviation-related developments next door. The airport became a popular destination for private aircraft owners who would fly into town during spring training to watch the Yankees play.

But “the city at the time really couldn’t take money from the general fund to support the airport and its growth,” says James, a 17-year Executive employee. So, “the city ended up selling [airport] property to help generate funding … It was more of the outliers,” or parcels remote from the airport’s core. By the mid-1970s, land leases had replaced land sales, he said, because “we were just doing a one-time cash infusion to fix the problem.” But the issue of too much outgoing and too little income persisted until the 1980s, when Executive finally got its financial wings.

The airport transformed itself by requiring upgraded aviation facilities in exchange for renewed land leases with tenants; Sheltair alone has made a cumulative investment of about $100 million in Executive facilities and infrastructure. Facility upgrades helped to boost traffic at the airport and turn it into a fiscal positive for the city. “The airport did pay the city [loan] back in full, including interest, by the early ’90s,” James said. “It has been on that steady path ever since.”