International designations position airport to support economic growth

If you’re one of those people who rolled their eyes and laughed when you heard Tallahassee Regional Airport was applying for “international” status, you need to check the chuckles and look at the larger picture.

It’s not about being able to fly off to Paris for a long weekend without changing planes in Atlanta, although that certainly sounds nice and officials hope that international commercial flights happen down the line. Instead, renaming and re-branding Tallahassee International Airport is about economic development, the capital city’s growing air-freight business and the need to accommodate general aviation aircraft, those private planes and jets that can fly in from the Caribbean, Central and South America and points beyond.

“Commerce comes first. You grow jobs. Everything else follows,” said Ben Pingree, director of Tallahassee-Leon County PLACE — Planning, Land Management and Community Enhancement program — which coordinates planning, economic development and Blueprint Intergovernmental Agency programs.

These days, business is global. Industry is global. Managing those enterprises is global. As Innovation Park’s leadership works to recruit more high-tech manufacturing companies to work alongside its world-class researchers — at the Florida A&M University-Florida State University College of Engineering and at FSU’s cutting-edge labs such as the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, High-Performance Materials Institute and the Aero-Propulsion, Mechatronics and Energy Center — transportation issues loom large. Being able to provide easy access for people and product is a key asset in economic development.

Having an international airport designation facilitates “a broader conversation,” said David Pollard, interim airport director. “We were at a competitive disadvantage with other airports in the region.”

The Austin, Texas-based consulting firm that analyzed the Tallahassee airport’s potential for growth in 2014 found it to be the largest general aviation airport in the Panhandle, handling almost 10 million pounds of air freight a year. Having passengers clear Customs and having cargo inspected at a Federal Inspection Services facility in Tallahassee eliminates the need for a stop in Orlando, Miami or Atlanta. In addition, overcrowding at South Florida airports may open up trade opportunities here with Central America.

With international-airport status, Tallahassee will be a “user fee” airport in the eyes of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Pollard said, covering all the costs of having Customs and Border Patrol personnel in place until international traffic reaches a minimum threshold for having them assigned permanently.

He said in early November that he hoped to meet with Customs officials soon to agree on a Memorandum of Understanding. Once that’s done, the airport can submit an application to create a Foreign Trade Zone and send out a Request for Proposals for design of the international arrivals facility, which would also house the Customs office. Such zones allow manufacturers operating there to import parts and components without having to pay import tariffs when they receive them. Instead, the tariff is paid when the final product is sold and shipped out.

In essence, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, creation of Foreign Trade Zones helps “level the playing field and improves U.S. competitiveness by reducing the costs of U.S. operations.”

“It opens us up to have a broader conversation, partnering with the Office of Economic Vitality and the Chamber to recruit,” Pollard said. “Adding a Foreign Trade Zone becomes one more feather in our cap and ultimately brings jobs to our community.”

This follows closely $62 million in major improvements inside the Ivan Munroe Terminal and to the runway. Phase 1 added an inline baggage handling system, terrazzo flooring and new ticket counters and rental car counters. Phase 2, due to be wrapped up by the end of 2017, renovated the security check-in area.

“One of the things that airlines are looking for is a clean and modern facility that is convenient for operations and for customers,” Pollard said. “Our IT systems improvements behind the scenes allowed airlines to use more kiosks and fewer ticket agents, which helps the carriers operate more efficiently.”

The announcement in late October that American Airlines will resume daily non-stop flights to and from Washington, D.C., in February underscored both the airport’s commitment to creating a clean, safe and secure environment and the growing connections between Tallahassee and the nation’s capital. The flights ceased in 2015 when American and U.S. Airways merged.

Meanwhile, the airport is advertising for design bids for a state-of-the-art, rental car quick-turnaround service facility with a two-story parking garage. “We hope to select an engineering firm in February or March,” Pollard said. “The design phase will take about a year, and construction will probably take another year after that.”

In addition, city utility customers have already pledged to buy all 20 megawatts generated from the 120-acre solar farm on airport property once the system goes online, and there’s a waiting list of potential customers. The City of Tallahassee Utilities is leasing the land, and Origis Energy owns and operates the farm — with more than 200,000 solar panels. Origis will sell the electricity to the city utility starting in January 2018.

A proposed second solar farm, twice the size of the first and designed to produce 40 megawatts, is currently under review as part of the airport’s master plan. The Federal Aviation Administration requires a number of steps in preparation, Pollard said, “and we’re working through it.”