To propel stalled aviation mart, polish up the business plan
By Michael Lewis
The Air Force has stalled Miami-Dade's launch of a massive commercial aviation show unlike anything else in the US, but the flight to the economic stratosphere is too good an idea to shoot down.
And, despite appearances, the Air Force didn't fire. It just told show organizers they'll need more homework to get an A at the Air Force Academy.
While organizers met with everyone under the sun to talk up the plan, in the end it was lack of suitable words on paper and not in meetings that spoke volumes. And the Air Force is adamant: the words must come from us, not them.
In the long run, that lesson should do us a planeload of good.
Because while the Beacon Council, the county's economic development group, got everyone but the military aboard to support the herculean undertaking, we got downgraded to incomplete for a shaky business plan.
That plan was, and is, to create and operate every second year a five-day Miami International Aerospace Show that would lure 800 manufacturers and exhibitors selling planes and supplies globally. The show would tie into Homestead Air Reserve Base.
The model is the successful Paris Air Show, which Beacon Council officials recently attended. It's also held every second year; we'd be active when Paris wasn't.
North America now hosts no major aerospace show. Miami, an aviation hub since flight's infancy, would be a logical site in late autumn, bringing in attendees for the serious business of big-ticket buying.
While it's envisioned in conjunction with the popular Wings Over Homestead air show, it wouldn't be a spectacle but a trade meeting to expand our aviation industry, lift tourism between big summer and winter seasons and aid Homestead's economy, shaky since Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
In every respect, the idea is a winner.
But we have to get from scheduling a show to takeoff and a successful flight. Success means many things, including achieving all these aims.
The key measure, however, is to not fall on our face with slipshod fare that won't enter the orbit of the few great aerospace shows globally.
The Air Force didn't say we wouldn't do well. It didn't say the show is a bad idea. It didn't say we could never use the base. It didn't say the Air Force wouldn't support the show.
But it said in writing that we hadn't presented enough of a business plan for the Air Force to signal takeoff.
Reading between the lines of a letter to all 25 members of Congress who had supported the show in writing, Air Force Maj. Gen. Lori J. Robinson seemed to be seeking authority to designate this the nation's air show of choice, a way to get off the hook if something went wrong, some pipeline of funding to the Air Force and — stated specifically — a much better business plan for the entire project.
"...any future consideration of such a proposal must be accompanied by a business plan and concept of operations that would address the specific types and level of support requested from the Air Force," she wrote. "This level of detail is the responsibility of, and should be developed and provided by, the Miami-Dade Commission, the Beacon Council, and the aerospace companies who would potentially underwrite this event, not the Air Force."
If the Air Force wants that level of detail to permit use of a base, so should Miami-Dade officials, who would fund up to $15 million of the effort. So should the Beacon Council, which is propelling the project.
And so should every resident, because we'll not only pay for the show but benefit mightily when it succeeds.
Clearly, detail wasn't there. Maj. Gen. Robinson said the Air Force acted "after careful consideration of the information provided to date...," so "based on what we know today, we are unable to support this proposal."
If ever there was a plea for information, that was it. The lesson was that we're not getting an F but an Incomplete on our homework.
Backers aren't quitting — as well they should not. "We will continue to proceed, as long as we continue to have the support of our local, state and federal officials," wrote Frank Nero, Beacon Council president and CEO.
While the show has virtually no chance to take off as scheduled in 2012, a 2014 target will clear time to finish homework to not only get the Air Force on board but make sure we have enough exhibitors to succeed and enough promotion time to get buyers to bring big delegations — and major purchasing power — to South Florida.
Two added years will also give supporters in Congress time to designate ours the national aviation exhibition, providing the Air Force cover to support this nationally vital mart but not commercial endeavors at every military base.
Making it the national trade show could funnel event revenue to offset Air Force costs and also cushion against risk and liability issues.
We should cheer a national designation — call it the US International Aerospace Show at Miami — and even a flight to the military of some revenues. The aim shouldn't be for local government or the Beacon Council to get show revenue but to generate powerful economic lift.
The fuel we'll use to lift this project from the ground must flow into the business plan. This time we tried the work internally, but from the Air Force's view not completely. Next time, we'll need an experienced pilot.
While the Beacon Council did get advice from producers of the Paris Air Show, it'll be more costly to hire experts to create the next proposal and then mount the show. That might entail separate teams to plan and operate — the ground crew and the flight team.
Not having them at work this time didn't fly. We'll need to pay more to play.
The Air Force hasn't shot down the plan. It's still the same A-grade concept it always was to send our economy soaring higher.
We just have to finish our homework.
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