:: January 2010 Letter ::
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…). 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 '40s (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 boom town 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 for next year’s budget. 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.
Teal Aircraft Binder reports this month include the AgustaWestland 101, Sikorsky’s S-92, the Superjet, Embraer’s ERJ 145, Boeing’s E-6, and the MiG-29. I hope your 2010 has begun on a positive note.
Yours, ‘Til My Flying Boat Comes In,
© Richard Aboulafia 1997-2006, All rights reserved.