Florida may be known for its theme parks and other tourist attractions, but when it comes to making the case for route development, the local airports prefer other powerful arguments.
Mention Florida to anyone and you can be confident that they will be thinking of theme parks, endless white sandy beaches and nights out in neon-lit cities.
But for anyone living there, that is only one side of life. The state is home to 20.98 million people and in 2016 boasted a GDP of $926 billion, making it the fourth largest economy in the US.
The state’s key industries are broad in scope and hi-tech, ranging from being the home of defence contractor Lockheed Martin, which set up shop in 1956, to hosting one of NASA’s main launch sites at the Kennedy Space Center.
Pharma and IT companies have also set up operations there while banks help to secure the economy’s backbone.
But for Vicki Jaramillo, senior director, marketing and air service development at Orlando International Airport, getting airlines to see past Florida’s reputation as the Sunshine State and a place for leisure is a major hurdle.
She says: “That is the perception when you have the best-known tourism brand in the world, whether it is Orlando or Disney itself, it is what people think of.
“We like to say Orlando is well known but it is misunderstood. It is one of the biggest challenges convincing the airlines that we have so much more.”
The problem is a constant one, Jaramillo believes, citing the example of Orlando’s single biggest unserved route, a connection to London Heathrow Airport.
“We’ve been targeting it for years,” she says. “When you already have a London service [from Gatwick], then convincing a carrier to do Heathrow is hard.”
This is despite more than 600 UK companies having facilities in Florida, she says, adding: “We have so many businesses like Lockheed with offices or interests in London too. There’s a demand for business travel, but they want it to be from Heathrow.”
Jaramillo notes that even once a route is ready for launch, airlines may still need to rearrange their offering to meet Orlando’s business needs. She cites the example of Lufthansa, which started operating its flight from Frankfurt using a Boeing 747-400 with 90% leisure seats but downgauged the aircraft to a 747-8 a couple of times in June when a convention drove a spike in business travellers.
“As there’s more demand for business-class seats, they needed to do it,” she says. “There’s so much competition that if the airplane isn’t working, they will pick it up and move it somewhere else.”
Nor is it just Orlando that has its work cut out when trying to explain the importance of business travel to carriers entering the Florida market.
Tampa International Airport director of research and air service development Kenneth Strickland says: “Up until a year ago or so, international carriers thought Tampa was strictly for the leisure market.
“We have been downplaying the tourism, although it is still record-breaking. In total, 43% of our traffic are originating passengers.
“We have premium traffic and the short booking curve that comes from business passengers. We show airlines our GDP growth and the fact that businesses are relocating their offices here – and in particular the white-collar ones.”
Strickland adds that he has also had difficulty persuading airlines of this fact and has seen similar problems with Lufthansa, as mentioned by Jaramillo.
In September 2015 it launched a service from Frankfurt to Tampa using the jump product on one of its A340-300s, which had only 18 business-class seats. He adds only recently has Lufthansa seen the error of its ways and in October will bring in a non-jump A340-300 with 32 business-class seats upfront.
Strickland also argues it is not just the business market that is keen to use outbound services. He says that while the city of Tampa is the fastest-growing one in the US at present, the airport boasts about 3.7 million people living within an hour’s drive of the airport and twice that number within two hours’ drive.
“We can also fill the aircraft with Tampa passengers going in the other direction as well, and that’s how we distinguish ourselves in Florida,” Strickland adds.
Jaramillo is also keen to promote the outward-looking nature of the local population, adding: “We are not visiting the amusement parks at the weekend as we’re always travelling. Airlines need to look at origin statistics. There is originating traffic here but we have to go after the opportunities.”
Passenger numbers (2017): 44.61 million
Destinations: More than 120
Aircraft operations (2017): 330,708
Nor is the business travel market the only one that airlines often overlook when dealing with Florida. Jaramillo says one of the benefits of having advanced engineering companies like Lockheed and NASA operating nearby is the trickle-down impact on local universities and the opportunities they afford students upon graduation.
As a result, Jaramillo says that with the University of Central Florida, the US’s second largest, and other educational establishments within the region, there are some 500,000 students, many of whom are exactly what the airlines are looking for.
She adds: “If there’s a student from China, they will be going back once or twice a year while mum and dad will visit at least once a year. A lot of universities have overseas programmes and a lot of international students and we don’t overlook them.
“We work as the ears and eyes for airlines. If we see an opportunity for Orlando traffic, we make sure the airlines know about it so they can reach out. It is just a little bit of extra service we offer.”
Jaramillo also says while Orlando airport has suffered from not having US airlines using the facility as a hub, that simply drives her team to work harder to attract new routes domestically.
She adds: “It is a lot harder to get the attention of the carrier. Obviously, all the US carriers are hub and spoke [in their business models], so our growth is going to come from being a spoke to the international hubs. We’ve got to work a little harder because we’ve got to make our stories a little more compelling.”
Jaramillo also believes Orlando airport will receive a major boost in 2021 when it becomes the only one in Florida to have a direct stop on Florida’s developing Brightline train service. The new stop will bring West Palm Bridge within two hours’ travel, Fort Lauderdale within two and a half hours and Miami within three hours.
She adds: “That will expand the pool. If you are in Palm Beach, it will be just as easy to jump on the train and come here.”
She is also working hard on MICE travel, in order to benefit from Orlando being home to the US’s second-largest conference centre, behind only Chicago but ahead of Las Vegas.
This does not mean the airports aren’t grateful for the tourism business they do attract. Strickland says local tourism records have been broken year on year for 56 months in a row and the airport works in close partnership with its local tourism board to ensure this trade continues.
Passenger numbers (2017): 19.62 million
Aircraft operations (2017): 189,865
“We’re going hand in hand with them, particularly when recruiting new airlines,” he adds.
Similarly, Jaramillo is not going to turn her nose up at a market worth $80 billion annually and last year saw Florida set a new record with 72 million visitors. But she will always rely on any number of other arguments when discussing route development with the world’s airlines.
She says: “There’s so much new stuff still going on and the destination will continue to change, even over the next couple of years.”
And Jaramillo accepts it is her job, just as it is Strickland’s at Tampa International Airport, not only to know about it but to factor it into planning too. And when they succeed in doing this, it might be their turn to take a well-earned break, although perhaps not in Florida, no matter how famous its parks, beaches and nightlife.