Leesburg Airport in Florida Goes International

Leesburg, Florida's airport has gone international and wants everyone to know it.

This week, officials mounted a sign at the airport entrance to make it clear that it is no longer a regional airport. The city spent about $1,500 to have the temporary sign made in which the word "regional" is struck through and "international" appears in red cursive.

"I think it's a way to graphically show that it's no longer a regional airport," Airport Manager Charlie Weller said Friday. "It gives the airport a whole new flavor."

At the prodding of The Villages retirement community, Leesburg opened a U.S. Customs office last August, clearing the way for city officials to apply for the international designation with federal officials. Weller said it will be official any day now.

However, the facility is far from joining the ranks of Orlando International and Miami International airports, which offer commercial flights to places such as Paris and Hong Kong. From January to date, 938,368 passengers have gone through Orlando's customs office, said Rod Johnson, spokesman for Orlando International.

In the same time period, a modest 80 to 100 international flights have gone through the Leesburg airport, which doesn't offer commercial international flights. The Villages takes advantage of the customs office to fly overseas, shuttling potential home buyers and business clients to Lake County.

The Villages contributed about $460,000 to set up the operation, with the promise that it will help pay for the inspector's salary if the airport doesn't generate enough through fees charged for service.

Weller said he is working to bring charter flights by making various improvements to Leesburg's airport. However, the traffic is still "pretty good" for a customs office that charges a service fee of $50 to $250, depending on the size of the plane.

"Most user-fee airports don't have that much activity," Weller said. "I wouldn't say we have high activity but it's good activity. When you start something like this you need to have more time to grow."

Copyright: The Orlando Sentinel -- 7/31/06

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