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Dear Fellow Workplace returnees...

It’s time for my annual travel letter. I’ll spare you the details of how we came to spend three weeks in South Florida. Suffice to say I expected an absence of aviation content- and I don’t have a lot to work with. But one pleasant surprise was a delightful sign commemorating Pan Am’s first headquarters in Key West.

“We pray in that direction- right?” responded Jon Ostrower (‘Flightblogger’) after I messaged him a photo of the sign. But after my initial delight- I felt kind of disappointed. After all- this was the birthplace of Pan Am- America’s de facto flag carrier- the aeronautical symbol of the country’s rise to greatness- and the greatest dead airline ever.

Considering the site’s historical interest- it’s a low-key commemoration: No museum. No gift shop offering coffee table books. No historical re-creation flights to St. Croix in a Martin flying boat with air crews in vintage uniforms (not that I had any hopes). It was just a sign- the kind they use to commemorate minor Civil War skirmishes and long-forgotten inventors’ birthplaces.

As I thought about it- the sign confirmed my worst suspicions that I had come to an aviation desert. Yet Florida once showed enormous aviation promise. It wasn’t just the birthplace of Pan Am. The state had everything needed to create a first-class aero industry.

It has great airfields- great flying weather- lots of wealth- and a strong geographic position between North and South America and the Caribbean. According to Graham Coster’s superlative Corsairville: The Lost Domain Of The Flying Boat- Florida also boasted the world’s first air passenger service- by seaplane. For decades- Piper was the largest general aviation firm in the world- building about 100-000 piston planes in Florida in the decades after World War Two.

Also- Florida’s aesthetics seemed to destine it for aviation greatness as well. Scores of Miami Beach buildings were built in a variant of art deco- reminiscent of aircraft designed in the 1930s and 1940s - particularly the almighty DC-3. As Steven Gaines describes these buildings in his entertaining Miami Beach exposé Fool’s Paradise- “They shared a specific architectural vocabulary- a sense of speed- of aeroplane moderne- of ocean-liner mechanical.” Frank Sinatra was almost living in the Fontainebleau- a classic Miami Beach hotel- around the time he recorded Come Fly With Me- itself a cultural artifact of the early jet age. Yet something went wrong.

Unlike Los Angeles- another art deco boomtown that became a world center of aviation manufacturing- Miami never became an aerospace center. In fact- unlike all of Southern California- Florida never really went anywhere with aviation. Sure- it had Cape Canaveral and Piper- but Florida never built a jet or even major parts for jets.

I still have a 1973-vintage National Geographic map that helpfully points out the factory tours available in Vero Beach- Piper’s home. Back then Piper was part of the broader public consciousness; today- it’s barely spoken of even in aviation industry circles. As with Pan Am- Piper’s decline says volumes about aviation’s faded cultural relevance. There are no scheduled flying boat services left in Florida. Meanwhile- ironically- the jet age almost killed Miami Beach- making international travel (and offshore gambling) more affordable.

This failure is not for want of trying. The recent history of Florida’s politicians trying to bring aviation work home is a series of strikes- fouls- and dumb errors. One notable near-miss was scoring the Lockheed/Embraer Aerial Common Sensor line for Jacksonville- but the program was cancelled. Finmeccanica and Boeing also picked Jacksonville for a C-27J JCA line- but that program’s downshift means less incentive to move work to a US-base- so plans seem to have been shelved. There was the SafireJet- which did on a smaller scale what Eclipse did to a much greater effect: extract cash from unsuspecting investors for no gain. And of course there was the state’s lavish support for air taxi service DayJet- which goes down as a great dumb moment in state-level industrial policy.

Yet Florida today isn’t completely devoid of aviation manufacturing. UTC’s Sikorsky and Pratt & Whitney units have a substantial presence. Several foreign companies have their US headquarters there- particularly Embraer and Piaggio. And there is a State Plane: Every four to six months Northrop Grumman’s St. Augustine facility gives birth to a new E-2 AEW bird.

The state’s aviation lobbying efforts actually did succeed in the FY 2010 budget debate- with a third plane added to the Navy’s plan. All told- Northrop employs over 4-500 Floridians (like UTC’s- most of the Northrop jobs arrived at the expense of northern states without right-to-work labor laws).

I don’t have any definite explanations for Florida’s relatively lackluster aviation industry performance- but it’s possible that the state discovered that tourism was a much easier industry to cultivate.

Florida’s tourism sector is worth an estimated $65 billion annually. Even allowing for some level of hooray-for-us number inflation- that’s more than half the value of aircraft deliveries for the entire world. Tourism provides Florida with about one million jobs- which are mostly not the equal of aviation jobs- but there aren’t one million aviation-manufacturing jobs in the whole country. And the tourism industry is pretty well spread out throughout the state.

At the dawn of the jet age- Miami was just about all of it. Today- there are three big travel and tourism centers (Miami- Orlando- the greater Tampa/St. Petersburg area) and lots of smaller centers too. As in so many other parts of the world- this trend illustrates profound international route fragmentation (any remaining A380 defenders take notice). In short- the numbers associated with Florida tourism show that it’s better to be a hugely popular destination than it is to be a major aviation manufacturing center.

To put it another way- has Florida lived up to its great expectations in the aviation world? Nope. But the conch fritters are delicious.

By way of travel tips- visit the Wolfsonian Museum in South Beach for a fascinating exhibit that ties together art deco- Italian Futurismo- and the aeronautical age. In Key West- notable restaurants include Louie’s Backyard- Cafe Marquesa- and Blue Heaven. In addition to the Gaines and Coster books- anything by Carl Hiaasen is great for Florida content. I liked Lucky You. Not to put another nail in Florida’s aeronautical coffin- but I would strongly Recommend Amtrak’s Auto Train.

Richard can be contacted on (703) 385-1992 ext. 103 (office); raboulafia@tealgroup.com


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