“If he pulls this off, Hendry County has won the lottery,” said First Bank Chairman and CEO Miller Couse at a March 18 dinner at Clewiston Country Club.
Open to the public, dozens of residents packed into the club’s main dining hall to enjoy a buffet-style dinner and listen to an update by Airglades International Airport LLC (AIA) President Fred Ford.
AIA assumed management of Airglades Airport after Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval last year, and hopes to purchase and privatize the county-owned airport to turn it into an international cargo hub, capitalizing off of Miami International Airport’s huge perishable cargo operation.
Miami International handled nearly 72 percent of all perishable goods that were imported into the United States in 2013, and ranks number one in the country for U.S. fruit and vegetable, flower and fish imports, according to information provided by the Miami-Dade Aviation Department.
What Ford and other Airglades stakeholders are counting on for the sleepy airport to be successful is that Miami International is already at capacity and cannot accommodate future growth.
Ford hopes Airglades can act as a relief airport for Miami’s perishable cargo imports, and believes the Clewiston-based airport has the necessary ingredients to make that happen.
According to Ford, Airglades offers a significant reduction in aircraft taxi time — the amount of time it takes a plane to get to the gate after touching down on the runway.
Ford said the average taxi time at Miami International is 24.48 minutes. At Airglades, the prospective taxi time would be 6.267 minutes, according to data provided by Ford at the dinner.
That would mean, on average, aircrafts would spend 18.213 minutes less taxiing to the gate. If the adage “time is money” rings true, exporters would find the reduction in time appealing.
But Ford offered more potential advantages of Airglades Airport over Miami, including the possibility of it being cheaper for businesses to direct their planes the extra 87 miles north to Clewiston than to land at Miami International. This potential decrease in costs is due to the fact that some of the arrival and departure routes at Miami are over 100 miles long, said Ford.
Ford cited other conditions that make Airglades Airport a special case for taking on Miami International’s perishable imports.
Airglades, said Ford, is the only eligible airport in the area that makes it efficient for planes to bypass Miami and land at another facility. If a plane travels 100 miles past Miami, said Ford, it would need to haul more fuel. Hauling more fuel, means hauling less flowers, he said.
Ford also said there is no conflict in airspace surrounding Airglades Airport.
“There is no other airport in this area that can do what the Clewiston airport can do in terms of efficiency,” said Ford to a responsive crowd.
Assuming the potential is real at Airglades Airport, can Hendry County expect to see this dream come to fruition? Ford believes it can.
Though the FAA still has not approved the sale of Airglades Airport to AIA, it has approved other aspects of AIA’s plans for the small airport, including the approval of the conceptual arrival and departure routes. The routes, said Ford, would run north and south instead of east and west like most runways in the region, offering improved fuel efficiencies, noise efficiencies and a reduction in miles flown.
Ford also said AIA is about 70 percent complete with its environmental assessment, which, when completed, would need FAA approval.
As AIA’s plans of turning the sleepy Clewiston airport into an international cargo hub inch along, Ford said prospective business ventures are already being talked about.
In 2012, Hendry County missed an opportunity to bring Miami-based Commercial Jet Advanced MRO Solutions to Airglades Airport. The company converts commercial jets into freighters, and looked at opening up shop at the Airglades facility. Ford said, politically, the county “didn’t have the horses to get it done,” and Commercial Jet turned to a town in Alabama instead.
Within three months of moving to Alabama, Ford said the company hired 318 people and trained them locally to perform the skills needed to convert its planes. But with a reported five-year backlog in business, Ford said Commercial Jet is once again eying Airglades.
Centurion Air Cargo is another business looking at utilizing Airglades Airport. Also based in Miami, Centurion is in the middle of upgrading its fleet and needs a place to store and dismantle nine or so planes, said Ford.
If Centurion chooses Airglades as the “retirement and funeral home” for its planes, it could double the airport’s income, said Ford.