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Drama.. Intrigue.. Flight Patterns

airport.jpgIt’s just after 1 p.m. at the Southwest Florida International Airport, and calm has begun to settle at the ticketing lines after the morning rush. Linda Febres is managing the counter for Spirit Airlines. There’s no one in line, until a woman rushes in the door. She is obviously late for her flight.

Traffic, the customer says, caused the delay for her and her husband, who is parking the car. The customer is pushy and demands that Febres make a phone call and prevent the plane from taking off. "I’m a lawyer," the customer proclaims.

Febres keeps her cool and hands over the tickets. The hopeful passenger runs off with her boarding passes, but not before telling Febres, who has worked at the airport for more than six years, that she knows the plane will wait for her. She’s an expert, the customer says. She flies all of the time.

After the last frantic customer leaves, nothing. There is no one in line, and there won’t be for hours. Spirit Airlines, along with just about every other airline, has cut back on its flights. Spirit used to have 10 to 12 flights every day, says Febres. Now it’s around five. "That’s a long stretch," she says of the downtime in the afternoon. "I like to stay busy."

The crowds come in waves. Sometimes the check-in counters are barren, and other times lines are backed up out the door. Overall, traffic is down about 5 percent this year, says Victoria Moreland, director of public relations for the Lee County Port Authority. But Southwest Florida International Airport remains one of the 50 busiest airports in the United States, seeing more than 8 million passengers in 2007. And thankfully, the downturn that has hurt all airlines and airports has had less of an effect in Fort Myers, Moreland says.

Despite a slow airline industry, the airport remains a bustling place. Airports always provide an interesting potpourri of people, ranging from infants in strollers to seniors in wheelchairs. There are businessmen in designer suits standing in line, waiting to check their bags, right next to sports fans of all types. One man, presumably a New York Giants fan, wears a T-shirt advertising his team, while another man sports a Milwaukee Brewers jersey. And it’s not just fans—the actual teams have to fly, too. A large group of young men stands in front of the AirTran terminal, all of them literally a foot taller than everyone else around them. It’s the Florida Gulf Coast University Eagles basketball team, wearing matching blue and white jackets and shirts. They’re on their way to Kansas for an upcoming exhibition game.

Eugene Snowden is also a traveling athlete, though not professional or collegiate. He flew down from his home in Waukegan, Ill., to play in a 50-and-over baseball tournament with his team, the Diamond Dogs. They finished 14th out of 20 participating teams. "Not so good," he says. More than anything, he enjoyed Florida’s warm weather. His teammates are staying around another week, but he has to get back for work.

Most of Anthony Cuneo’s work is at the airport, as a limo driver for Royal Floridian. He’s wearing a black suit and sunglasses at the exit to Concourse D. The Cape Coral resident got his start in Atlantic City and has been driving for more than two decades. He’s waiting on a big-time client—so big, Cuneo says, that he never waits at the concourse for anyone but this customer. "I wouldn’t say he’s a billionaire," he says of his nameless passenger, "but he’s pretty close."

Cuneo’s face is all business as he leans, relaxed, against the railing, but just steps from him, another chauffeur is more anxious. Jennell Randall is waiting to pick up her son, Giles Stolarick, who is flying in from El Paso. Stolarick recently joined the National Guard and will ship out to Iraq in a few days. Their time together will be short, so she aims to make the most of it. That Sunday afternoon, they’re having an early Thanksgiving dinner. All of Stolarick’s brothers and sisters are in town to surprise him. Randall gets a surprise of her own when her son, who landed at another gate, sneaks up behind her. "You’re here!" she shrieks in shock as they hug. Stolarick is scheduled to spend nine months in Iraq. Beyond that, it’s unclear. "Hopefully only Iraq," Randall says. "Not Afghanistan." They walk off, Stolarick with a large green equipment bag in one arm, his mother on the other.

Every half-hour, a pre-recorded voice speaks over an intercom to read the time. There are other, more authentic voices as well. They announce flight changes, seek out missing passengers or make various proclamations. "Will the parent allowing their child to pick up the white courtesy phone," the voice says sternly, "please take your child off of the telephone now?"

This public notice inspires a laugh from the women working in 10 Minute Manicures, a shop located just before the security check-in for Concourse D. Debra Perret, of North Carolina, is getting a pedicure. She spent all day on the beach and the sand scuffed up her toenails. Tonight, she’s going to a party in Washington, D.C., so she has to look good. "Great concept," Perret tells her pedicurist, Amelia Dunckelman, of the service as she pays and leaves to catch her flight. Conveniently, 10 Minute Manicures is not limited to its titular role, as Perret’s pedicure would imply. The location also offers manicures and pedicures of the 15- and 30-minute variety, as well as massages.

It’s a unique feature of Southwest Florida International Airport to have services, such as 10 Minute Manicures, and restaurants, like Chili’s Too, located prior to the security checkpoints, beyond which only ticket-holders are allowed to pass. Those who come in to meet passengers as they arrive, or to say their goodbyes before they depart, appreciate the accessibility. "It is an unusual design," Moreland says. "We’ve gotten a lot of awards and accolades."

The airport first opened in 1983, but quickly exceeded the expectations local officials had for traffic. Over the years, it became increasingly clear that a new facility was necessary. On Sept. 5, 2005, the new, $438 million Southwest Florida International Airport opened, and it came in under budget. It carries the distinction as the first airport built from the ground up after Sept. 11, 2001. The design is a balance of security, economy and style.

Being built after Sept. 11 led to heightened security restrictions, but it also allowed the airport to make the screening checkpoints seamless for customers. For example, Southwest Florida International Airport is one of the first six in the nation to have in-line baggage. That means if customers check their bags inside or out, they don’t see where they go, and they don’t have to run them through a big machine. Police are also stationed in the airport, and some of them, like Officer Toly Ung, are equipped with a Segway personal transport. The airport has been his jurisdiction for five years, and he’s become quite comfortable on his Segway, zipping around, leaning into turns and sometimes not even needing to place his hands on the handlebars. "It’s a very good tool," Ung says. He hasn’t fallen off his Segway yet, he says, as he jokingly knocks on a wooden cabinet next to him.

Security doesn’t lead to a lack of style, though. "It’s a really attractive facility, and at the same time a secure facility," Moreland says. The airport features palm trees and natural sunlight atrium lighting that make it stylish and unique. That’s important, Moreland says, because 80 percent of the people who come to this area are tourists headed to Fort Myers, Naples, the barrier islands and all of Southwest Florida’s other prime locations. "We become the front door of the region," she says. "We have to make the very best impression on those customers."

Travelers of various nationalities find their way through Fort Myers, whether on layover or as a final destination. That’s where the "international" component of Southwest Florida International Airport comes in. Direct flights to both Canada and Germany are offered on a daily basis. Lucky for those German passengers coming to the states, there probably aren’t two better people to be greeted by than Bodo and Monika Gaw. Bodo was a German diplomat with the United Nations years ago, so he knows a few things about representing his country. The two bought land for 10,000 Deutschmark in Lehigh Acres 13 years ago, after they saw an advertisement on German television. Considering the Deutschmark is now defunct, the conversion to U.S. dollars is difficult, but Monika assures it was a good price. Now the Gaws live here six months out of the year, splitting their time with Berlin. "It’s very, very interesting helping people," Bodo says. "They are so happy."

The Gaws are volunteer goodwill ambassadors at the airport. Bodo has been at it since 2005, and he has the badges to prove it. They’re pinned to his lanyard, commemorating each year that he’s volunteered there. There are more than 120 other volunteers like Monika and Bodo who help staff five booths and answer questions for people coming in. The most popular inquiries among passengers today, the Gaws show on a tally chart they keep, have been about restaurants and transportation. Most of the volunteers, Moreland says, are local retirees who just like to talk to people. "They really are just wonderful."

But in all those friendly volunteer faces, no employee at the Southwest Florida International Airport is more famous than Sky. She’s a border collie that scares birds off the runways to ensure safe takeoffs and landings for airplanes. Sky has gained a lot of attention, including a recent feature in USA Today. The airport’s bird herder catches everyone’s eye when she’s out on the tarmac doing her job, Moreland says. "The passengers will wave out of the airplane, the pilots give thumbs up. It’s a unique, fun thing that we have here."

There’s a dog yelping near the baggage claim terminal on the airport’s first floor. It’s not Sky, though: This is a Chinese Crested hairless—a little eight-week-old puppy. Allen Garcia, a station agent with American Airlines, is waiting for the dog’s owner to arrive. He talks over its high-pitched shrieks, telling some of the more bizarre things that can happen at an airport. One time, Garcia says, a passenger came in, claiming he had $1 million in cash in his bag, and it had gone missing. "He threatened to sue and everything."

A woman walks into Garcia’s tiny office, and the dog’s barking stops. They’ve only just met, yet Morticia already knows her owner. Elaine Hordath, of Cape Coral, picked up her new dog on her trip to Texas. Morticia survived her first-ever flight, though she’s still shaking. Hordath places her index finger into the front of her puppy’s cage, petting Morticia. "Oh my God," she says to the dog. "You’re so cute!"

With the dog gone, the room is silent, and Garcia has time for a few more stories. Like all of the other employees, he’s noticed business has been slower. "The crowds are not nearly as high," he says. But that doesn’t prevent the days from being filled with some kind of excitement. Just today, a flight came in from Chicago that was supposed to have 29 bags on it, but 15 were missing. The passengers weren’t happy, but Garcia knows to expect that before he even starts his day. "Everybody is going to be angry," he says. Garcia doesn’t handle missing baggage full-time, as it’s a rotated position, but it’s a job that no one looks forward to. "This is where we have less volunteers," he says.

Passengers whose bags have a successful trip tend to be cheery when they get in van 19 with driver Dan McDermott of Standard Parking. He’s one of a team of more than 100 drivers who strive to get passengers from their car to the airport, or vice versa, in 15 minutes or less. Moreland boasts of the airport’s prompt parking lot service and 15-minute guarantee, but McDermott, wearing a black shirt with yellow flowers and a black baseball cap, is reluctant to make promises. On this trip, with only three cars to stop at, he has no problem achieving the 15-minute goal. McDermott has been a driver at the airport since 2001. He cut back on hours when he turned 62 so he could collect Social Security, he says, as he parks the van and waits for more passengers. Lately, things have been slow, he admits. "It’s the economy."

Though times are tough, officials with Southwest Florida International Airport remain optimistic about the future. "As an airport, we’re in the best position possible," Moreland says. The airport is positioned with low costs, good carriers and an engaged community. The facility’s strong support from the region is likely because it has been a financial boon for the area. A 2005 study put the airport’s annual contribution to the region’s economy at $3.6 billion. Consider, also, that the facility is run entirely by grants, tenants and user fees, and not through any property taxes. "I think it’s important for citizens to realize, wow, you’ve got this world-class facility, and it’s not coming out of property tax dollars," Moreland says.

Southwest Florida International Airport is prepared for the future, too. A new runway is being planned, and it could be finished by 2015. "It will be built when we need it," Moreland says. "This is an airport," she says, "that is built for tomorrow."

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