At Vero Beach Regional Airport, it is wheels up in all aspects with smooth flying ahead.
Although the pandemic did briefly shut down a few of the businesses on its property, it led to increased private flying operations. In addition, 2023 saw a new airline take off—in more ways than one; and a marketing campaign started in 2021 is promoting the existing tenants and attracting new opportunities.
Airport Director Todd Scher says, “The businesses at the airport are doing well. They, of course, support the airport with their rent and fees and enable us to pay our operating costs. Our revenue is used for the matching share of grant funds that are allocated to us either from the State of Florida or FAA, which are used for upkeep on the airport. We do not use tax ad valorem revenue.”
That’s good news indeed for the general aviation airport, which occupies 1,700 acres of property just 2 miles from downtown Vero Beach.
Breeze Airways began operations at Vero Beach Regional Airport in February with nonstop flights to Westchester/White Plains, New York and Hartford, Connecticut; it immediately gained popularity with residents. The airline is just two years old, created by JetBlue founder David Neeleman. It flies Vero Beach passengers in planes larger than did Elite Airways, which discontinued local operations last year.
“Breeze has done a good job of identifying and serving the market,” Scher says. “The planes are filled going out, and in September the airline added flights, and now departs from Vero Beach twice a day, seven days a week. Frankly, we didn’t expect that much growth so soon, but the response from the community has been terrific.”
Providence, Rhode Island has already been added, and at least one more destination is expected in the near future.
Another plus for the Vero Beach flying public is that parking at the airport is still free. “We were very concerned with the size of planes and number of passengers that we would run out of parking,” Scher says. “But that has not happened.” The 80 spaces in long-term parking are proving sufficient.
A drawback, however, is the outdoor baggage claim, but the airport plans to rectify this situation in the near future. Covered walkways will lead incoming passengers to a new and larger outdoor covered baggage claim area, then inside to a new passenger exit lane with additional restrooms.
Scher says an airline such as Breeze is important to the community. “With Breeze, we are able to serve more of the general population than if we didn’t have an airline. We are a good airport without an airline; we are a better airport for the community with one.”
Corporate Air, a full-service fixed-base operator and maintenance facility at the airport, has two major developments underway. It broke ground for customs operations in April and started construction on six additional hangars.
The 3,800-square-foot customs facility is targeted to open next summer, according to Rodger Pridgeon, Corporate Air’s founder and president. “It will be a user-fee facility, which means Corporate Air will fund and operate the facility,” he explains. “We made the decision based on the demand from our business and the community.”
Corporate Air conducted a feasibility study as required in its application to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. “It showed a 30 percent increase not only to our business but also to the surrounding area—restaurants, hotels, rental cars, etc. It will be a big boom.”
Pridgeon estimates that more than 50 percent of Corporate Air’s customers flying internationally head to The Bahamas. So, after the customs facility is completed, the company will apply to the Bahamian government to allow for clearance of Bahamian customs at the Vero Beach facility.
Corporate Air’s business has increased steadily since it reopened after the pandemic forced a month-long closure. “Because of the major disruption in airline travel, many people who were accustomed to flying first class chose to buy their own plane, charter, or join a fractional program. It made private travel much more attractive and better for our business.”
With that increased business came the need for additional hangar space, so Corporate Air has leased an additional 13 acres at the airport and is building six 20,000-square-foot hangars.
“Florida has been a target, especially for people who own an aircraft, and they need a place to put it,” Pridgeon says. “Currently, there is no available space in South Florida, so these six hangars will be sold very quickly.”
Skyborne Airline Academy, which bought FlightSafety Academy in 2020, continues to add students and staff at its Vero Beach campus. The flight school has entered a partnership with Delta Air Lines, and the inaugural class started in May of this year. According to COO Ian Cooper, Skyborne will train 120 students a year, and “that number will probably double in size.”
The training course in Vero Beach is 52 weeks, and then some of the graduates will be employed by Skyborne as flying instructors for a two-year stint here. Other graduates will be placed elsewhere to acquire the necessary flying hours before moving on to a Delta connection carrier.
In a similar partnership, Skyborne is currently training 120 students a year for IndiGo, India’s largest airline, and talks are underway with other carriers.
“We are really proud of our facility here,” Cooper says. “We recently showed representatives from a European airline around and they were impressed with it.” The former FlightSafety facilities have undergone major improvements in the past two years, he explains.
“We have literally refurbished everything. Other than the operations center, we have rebuilt the main training center, upgraded all the student areas, and modernized our office space. The final piece is the operations center, which will be completed in the fourth quarter. We are reconfiguring it into more of an airline-style operations area.”
Skyborne has the capacity to train 400 students on its 12-acre Vero Beach campus, Cooper says, with 10 to 20 percent living off campus.
The increased student population demands more staff at the Vero Beach operation. “We now have a massive recruitment campaign going on,” Cooper says. “We need more ground school instructors, more flying instructors, more administration staff.” By year’s end, he estimates the staff will be increased from 120 to nearly 200.
More students also create a need for more aircraft, Cooper adds, and Skyborne recently purchased four Archer DX trainers from Piper Aircraft, another important business located at the airport. In addition, 10 all-electric trainer aircraft are on order from Bye Aerospace, a manufacturer based in Englewood, Colorado.
“We should have had them by now,” Cooper laments, “but it is taking longer than we had hoped. The forecast delivery date is autumn of 2026. We really want to get into electric aircraft.”
It seems that Vero Beach Regional Airport will also be getting into electric aircraft through a potential new tenant on the property.
Scher says the airport is in lease negotiations for a parcel of land between Piper and Skyborne with Skyports Infrastructure, a UK company that builds and operates vertiports for electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft. Much of this technology is still conceptual, and the particulars of its role in our lives here in Vero Beach remain to be seen, but running an airport requires forward thinking.
“Advanced air mobility (AAM) is an emerging segment of the aviation industry,” Scher explains. “Skyports will provide the infrastructure, including electric charging stations for the vehicles, but not the vehicles themselves. The vehicle operator will be a subtenant.”
Scher estimates it will be several years before any eVTOL aircraft operates at the Vero Beach airport but adds that the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) is encouraging the state’s airports to be at the forefront of this industry through AAM initiatives. “So when it comes to Vero Beach, we will be ready.”
Despite the current activity, FDOT reports that Vero Beach Regional Airport’s 2022 economic impact is slightly less than in 2019. However, future growth at the airport points to a strong comeback by the next reporting period. FDOT seems to agree, because last year it named Vero Beach Regional Airport “Florida General Aviation Airport of the Year.”
Growth brings increased opportunities, but also the possibility of negative impact if it is not planned and orderly.
“Our endgame is to remain financially self-sufficient and also to grow in such a way that is not detrimental to the surrounding area,” Scher says, adding, “Our development fits in with that of the community, and we are growing in an appropriate way.”