Wild Blue Yonder
Melbourne’s airport is making a rapid ascent
“This isn’t your momma’s airport, anymore,” says Keely Leggett, public information officer for the Melbourne-Orlando International Airport in Melbourne. The numbers back up that declaration, as a massive growth spurt has seen passenger traffic triple since 2020.
So, what’s happened? It’s called TUI [two-ee], a British mega-travel company. TUI books tourists from eight gateway cities in England to Melbourne, aboard Boeing 787 jumbo jets that carry up to 350 tourists each. On a recent Sunday, TUI’s six flights brought over a total of 2,000 passengers, a record day for the airport. TUI previously flew into Sanford but switched to Melbourne in 2021, with flights beginning in March 2022. As part of the deal, Melbourne had to undertake a $72 million expansion program that included adding 86,000 square feet to the terminal.
“It’s been an unbelievable ride for our little airport,” says Mark Busalacchi, the airport’s director of development.
TUI passengers usually visit Florida for about two weeks. Some head to the theme parks in Orlando; some are booked on cruises with the TUI cruise line that sails from Port Canaveral; and many spend a few days at the beach on the Space Coast.
The airport upgrade also includes additional TSA security check points and an expansion of U.S. Customs operations. A mural, painted by local artists Kole Trent and David Rothman, was commissioned for the escalator. There’s more locally created wall art, provided by the Brevard Cultural Alliance. And in an area just off the main concourse, space is provided for a guest artist to work and sell pieces of art to travelers.
TOURISM & BEYOND
In addition to TUI’s international flights, the airport is growing its domestic flight service. American Airlines recently announced nonstop service between Melbourne and Washington, D.C. “This is an important route, due to the synergy it creates connecting D.C. with our strong aerospace and defense industry on the Space Coast,” Busalacchi says.
American also flies nonstop to its hub in Charlotte, North Carolina. Other domestic carriers include Delta, with nonstops to its Atlanta hub. Smaller carriers with regular Melbourne service are Allegiant, Avelo and Sun Country. Busalacchi predicts additional domestic flights will come in the future.
Airport Authority chairman Bill Potter says the airport is “flexible and agile” in approaching airlines about new service in Melbourne. “We must make at least 50 proposals — formal and informal — a year to carriers. I’m confident one of the low-cost airlines like JetBlue will someday make Melbourne home.” The airport’s growth can be seen in the passenger-traffic numbers. In 2020, there were 232,832 passengers into and out of Melbourne. In 2022, that number jumped to 701,257. Most of that increase was a result of the TUI relocation. “TUI exponentially increased our passenger count,” says Busalacchi.
Beyond the commercial-airline traffic, the airport is also growing with companies that are bringing defense and aerospace business to the airport. Dassault Falcon Jet is creating 400 new, local jobs by locating their maintenance and repair facility in Melbourne. Dassault is building a $115 million complex off Apollo Boulevard. Embraer, a Brazilian aircraft company, has moved the assembly center for four of its aircraft to Melbourne, as well as an engineering and technical center. That brought in 150 new jobs last year alone.
Defense companies with a presence at the airport include Northrup Grumman, a longtime airport tenant, which does all the engineering on the B2 Strike Bomber at its Melbourne campus. Other companies with an airport presence, according to the airport’s website, are L3Harris, Collins Aerospace, STS Mod Center, Thales, GE Transportation, Southeast Aerospace, Satcom Direct and Avidyne Corporation.
Another major but secretive project, nicknamed Autobahn, could be on the horizon. The Melbourne airport is competing against several other states for this defense-aerospace development, which would occupy 111 acres on airport property. Details are murky, as airport officials say that the bidding process is ongoing and shrouded in secrecy. Airport executive director Greg Donovan refers to Autobahn as “a blue chip project,” but doesn’t elaborate. The airport authority has been told that negotiations involve a 50-year lease involving access to runways and taxiways.
Commercial development at the airport is focused on engineering, with Florida Institute of Technology and Eastern Florida State College providing a steady supply of graduates to fill the technical jobs. Potter says the airport’s expansion has boosted the Space Coast economy by providing good, high paying jobs and that, in turn, “the labor market has proven to be very attractive” to incoming airport tenants.
All of this activity also led to the construction of Hyatt Place, a new hotel located on airport property. That deal was negotiated during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and the hotel opened in early 2023.
“We’re never going to compete with Orlando’s airport, but we will continue to grow,” Busalacchi says with confidence.
Fred Mays is a freelance writer and photographer who resides in Satellite Beach. He is a retired television journalist, and active on media issues with the Brevard Indian River Lagoon Coalition. His blog is www.floridaunplugged.net.