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Latin American Jet Setters Key To Florida Airport’s Revival

David Mendal, who owns several luxury travel companies, is shown next to his jet at the revamped Opa-locka Executive Airport. An airport with a storied history, it had fallen into disrepair until the increasing numbers of wealthy Latin Americans and other entrepreneurs and jetsetters helped boost demand for the airport. Carmen Sesin

Opa-locka, FL -- For years, South Florida resident and travel executive David Mendal would fly to Latin America on his private jet through Opa-Locka Executive Airport, a former military facility with quite a storied past. In 1937, Amelia Earhart took off near its entrance on her ill-fated attempt to fly around the world in 1937. During WWII, it was the nation's busiest airport. In 1979, after it turned to civilian use, it had more takeoffs and landings than any other airport in the US - 554,000 in total.

Yet by the 1990s, the Miami-Dade county owned airport had hit an all-time low. Mendal, who started working at an Avianca Airlines counter in Bogota, Colombia when he was very young and now owns six travel and aviation companies, stopped using Opa-locka as the place hit rock bottom and became a deserted dumping ground for old airplanes. The neighborhood surrounding it was also distressed and had a poor reputation. No one wanted to travel through there, especially on a private jet.

“The airport was dying,” according to Nelson Mejias, airport manager for Opa-locka, who has spent 27 years in Miami’s Aviation Department.

But that was then. Just like in real estate and other areas, the influx of wealthy Latin Americans to the Miami area has contributed to a boost in the economy, including high demand for the former 87-year-old military facility. "The airport is flourishing," said Mendal.

The boom has greatly benefited those in the aviation industry who were counting on better days at Opa-Locka, people like Fabio Alexander Vasquez. There are currently three Fixed-Base Operators (FBOs) - companies which provide services to private planes - at the airport. Vasquez worked for the first FBO which opened in 1996 fueling planes for $8 an hour. After the company went bankrupt, Vasquez made a gutsy move and put $18,000 on two credit cards, moved into his former employer’s space and created Miami Executive Aviation (MEA).

“The airport was a diamond in the rough,” said Vasquez. Now, MEA and its partner, Ross Aviation, have invested $17 million into 120,000 square feet of office and 4 hangar spaces.

In total, MEA and the two other FBOs have poured over $100 million in construction, and a massive cleanup by the Miami-Dade Aviation Department led to the removal of old aircrafts. The new high-end facilities have been a hit among the jet-setting crowd, particularly from Latin America.

“We have a lot of clients who just like to come to Miami,” said Vasquez, who has seen a surge in Venezuelan, Mexican, Brazilian, Colombian, and Argentinian travelers in MEA and his charter company, Executive Air Services. Many of the transient planes are from entrepreneurs, Fortune 500 companies, and celebrities, while the tenants include real estate developers and tech-entrepreneurs.

A Falcon 7X, worth around $55 million, parked outside the terminal of Miami Executive Aviation at the Opa-locka Executive Airport. Carmen Sesin

Francisco Angarita, a pilot and co-owner of Fox Management International, is constantly flying back and forth from Venezuela and Colombia to Opa-locka, managing aircraft for private owners. Angarita said that as Miami has become more of a destination, Latin Americans who owned second homes in other parts of Florida like Boca Raton and West Palm Beach have begun moving closer to Miami, thus bringing more air traffic to Opa-locka.

According to US Customs and Border Protection, 33,952 passengers were processed at the airport during the last fiscal year. Just year already, the same amount have already gone through Opa-Locka. In 2013, about 40 percent were nationals from Latin America. Venezuelans topped the list with over 7,000 clearing Customs, followed by Mexicans with over 2,000.

In the last 5 years, the number of private jets based at the airport jumped from 53 to 147. The gallons of fuel sold have more than doubled since the airport’s turnaround - from 5 million gallons prior to 2009 to over 10 million gallons last year.

“What we see is a change to a corporate airport,” Mejias said.

Hugo Faria, a visiting Economics and Finance professor from Venezuela who is teaching at Barry University, said the astounding impact Latin Americans have had on Miami is not surprising. Faria attributes this to a commodities boom in the region, as well as a sense by some wealthy Latin American executives and entrepreneurs that their private property is better protected in Miami. Many Latin Americans have also started opening businesses or subsidiaries of their companies in Miami.

One of the other FBOs at Opa-Locka Aiport, Orion Jet Center, opened a state of the art terminal building in January, with a stylish lobby that includes a bar and lounge area. The terminal has a sleek VIP lounge which allows celebrities and others who wish to not be seen to go directly from their car to the lounge through a private entrance and then directly to their plane when it’s ready for boarding.

“There is no facility like this in South Florida and likely, anywhere in the world,” said Eric Greenwald, Orion Jet Center's president.

A private plane inside one of the 4 hangars at Miami Executive Aviation at the Opa-locka Executive Airport. Carmen Sesin

Greenwald said his company has seen an increase in tail numbers of aircraft originating from Central and South America. This has meant one important thing - more fuel sales.

“When we look at the average number of gallons [of fuel] per uplift, per plane, we’re selling more, which means we’re fueling larger aircraft. Those aircraft are coming from, generally speaking, further away,” Greenwald said.

Image: Interior of a Falcon X7, worth about $55 million, one of the many private jets now seen at the newly refurbished Opa-Locka Executive Airport in Opa-Locka, Florida.
Interior of a Falcon X7, worth about $55 million, one of the many private jets now seen at the newly refurbished Opa-Locka Executive Airport in Opa-Locka, Florida. Carmen Sesin

The county-owned airport has played a pivotal role in the nation’s history. At the height of the Cold War, it played a central role in the infamous ‘Black Flights’ to Guatemala, the Bay of Pigs invasion, and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The facility has also made more recent history. In 1996, two Brothers to the Rescue aircraft shot down by Cuban Air Force MIG’s while on a humanitarian mission had departed from Opa-locka. Elian Gonzalez’s grandmothers flew into Opa-locka on a chartered jet from Cuba when they met with their grandson in 2000. Mohammed Atta, the hijacker and mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks, as well as Marwan al-Shehhi, trained in a 727 simulator in Opa-locka nine months before the terrorist event. Today, the airport still has a military presence with the world’s busiest US Coast Guard Air/Sea Rescue Station.

But for executives like David Mendal, it's just convenient to have Opa-Locka airport back in business.

“If I need special catering, they know what I like and they put it inside the plane," said Mendal. "They have everything ready for me so I can get out of my car and into the plane and take off."