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Airport in Transition

The airlines take center stage

As the sun rises in the humid South Florida sky at 6:33 a.m. on May 19, a FedEx Boeing 727 touches down.

A Day in the Life of America's Airports

As the sun rises in the humid South Florida sky at 6:33 a.m. on May 19, a FedEx Boeing 727 touches down. American and Northwest flights have already departed; Continental is holding short; a twin turboprop is taxiing; and almost two miles to the east a Southwest 737 is pushing back from the gate. Lights twinkle out as the airport begins another day. Unlike most airports serving general aviation, however, this one has been operating continually for the past 24 hours.

Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport is an airport in transition. It's become a jumping-off point for flights to the Caribbean — both personal and commercial. Combined with passengers flying in to board cruises and the fact that low-cost airlines have found the airport a favorable alternative to Miami, commercial traffic is booming.

The numbers are dramatic. Airline passenger counts at Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International have doubled in the past 10 years, and today general aviation accounts for only 18 percent of operations at the airport. Most piston-powered GA traffic has migrated to nearby North Perry Airport, also operated by Broward County, or Fort Lauderdale Executive. The airports operate as a system, explains Walt Houghton, assistant to the director of aviation for Broward County.

But 18 percent of 297,000 annual operations means that International still sees 53,000 GA operations per year, more than many strictly GA airports. At 9:43 a.m. Seth Young smoothly pushes the throttle forward, accelerating the Cessna 172, and lifts off from Runway 9 Right. An associate professor in Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University's college of business who is on sabbatical in Fort Lauderdale, he's returning the Skyhawk to the university's employee flying club in Daytona Beach.

Just before lunch, Sonny Knowles arrives from Key West in a Beechcraft Baron, delivering its owners for a weekend shopping trip. "We pick this airport because it's closest to their destination," he says. The trip typically takes 45 to 50 minutes each way.

At 2 p.m. a NetJets crew watches television in the pilots lounge at SheltAir Aviation Services, one of five FBOs on the airport. Capt. Jim McNees, from Dayton, and Tom Haley, of Boston, arrived Friday evening. In an hour they'll hop south to Miami, load some passengers aboard the Cessna Citation Excel, and fly them to New Jersey.

At 3:17 p.m. Gary Church, of Washington, D.C., preflights a Cirrus SR22 GTS on the SheltAir ramp. He and his wife had spent a week in Providenciales, Turks and Caicos Islands, and landed at Fort Lauderdale to clear U.S. Customs, refuel, and eat lunch. "It's nice to have this option, and to be able to do this on our own schedule," he says. "Flying GA you arrive relaxed."

Later, as the sun drops below the horizon, the rhythm of operations continues at Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport. Airliners come and go in a choreographed flow, and general aviation slips into the mix almost unnoticed. The airport will be open all night, and the cycle will repeat tomorrow.

E-mail the author at [email protected].

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