New terminal, hangars, space: Major upgrades underway at Marco’s airport

Lance Shearer

Marco Island’s airport is having $13 million spent to upgrade its facilities, but Collier County Airports Manager Justin Lobb says many people don’t even know it’s there.

There are two major projects in the works at the airport, which is not actually on the island but down Collier Boulevard at the end of Mainsail Drive. Replacing the existing terminal with a new two-story building is well underway, and currently scheduled to open during the coming winter season – although the county website still shows the “new terminal facility opening Summer 2019.”

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At a cost of $9.4 million, the new terminal is being funded 80 percent by the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), with the balance paid by local airport and county taxes. The new building, at over 16,000 square feet, more than doubles the size of the existing terminal.

A second project will raze the old terminal building once its replacement is operating, freeing up the space for a larger apron area to enhance the airport’s ground operations. The approximately $3.5 to 4 million cost for that phase will be 90 percent paid for by the FAA.

In a third project, private developer Marco Hangars LLC is building new hangar facilities on 117,000 sq. ft. of space, with 11 total hangars.

With the airport tucked away off main roads, it is easy to overlook, unless you are one of the increasing number of flyers taking advantage of it, said Kate Whitson-Alves. A Marco resident and graduate of Embry-Riddle University’s aviation program, she is a pilot herself.

“Many people on Marco Island don’t know we exist – and in Naples, forget it,” she said. “People think it’s funny that the Marco Island airport isn’t on Marco Island.”

Once, though, it was. Marco Island had not one, but two airstrips built by the Mackle brothers and Deltona during the “buy and fly” era of the island’s development, said local attorney and unofficial island historian Craig Woodward. He remembers the first, which shared duty as a road heading down to the missile tracking station at Caxambas Pass and was built to bring visitors and potential real estate buyers to the island.

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“I remember riding with my parents in our car and driving to the tracking station; one had to drive down the airstrip looking out for planes!” said Woodward. That airstrip along Landmark Street, built in the mid-1960s, was replaced in the early 1970s with a new airport north of San Marco Road, with a terminal building in the area of South Seas Court. 

Deltona advertised scheduled service from both Miami and Tampa airports. All on-island flight services were removed to make way for development.

The current airport at Marco Shores received a major upgrade in 2012, when a taxiway was added alongside the 5,000-ft. long runway at a cost of almost $7 million, paid 95 percent by the FAA. The new improvements reflect the increasing utilization of the Marco Executive Airport and its importance to the local economy, said Lobb.

As a “non-towered” airport, Marco’s airport doesn’t have an exact count of how many flight operations, such as a takeoff or landing, occur each day or over a year, but larger aircraft that file flight plans are recorded, and they have an estimate. From 20,000 operations in 2013, just after the taxiway was completed, Lobb estimated they are currently at “just under 60,000 – nearly a three-fold increase.”

Fuel sales, another measurable gauge of airport activity, are up 20 percent from last year, with about 500,000 gallons of aviation fuel sold this year to date. Per FDOT, the Marco Island Executive Airport is estimated to have a $31.7 million impact on the area’s economy.

Some airport neighbors have expressed concern.

“People assume a new terminal means bigger jets. In Fiddler’s Creek, they want to be sure we don’t bring in 737s,” said Whitson-Alves. “Our runway can’t get any bigger.” Lobb has spoken to community organizations of nearby communities.

Environmental concerns have been paramount and contributed to the time it took to have the taxiway permitted, with the airport surrounded by mangroves and sensitive wetlands. One unique feature of the Marco airport is a nest of American crocodiles at the end of the runway, and Burmese pythons have been caught nearby.

The airport hosts the Civil Air Patrol’s Marco Island senior squadron, flight schools, charter and general aviation operators, an aircraft maintenance business, and an Enterprise rental car office. The CAP hangar was demolished by Hurricane Irma, but the airport mostly escaped other damage.

Collier County’s Airport Authority also operates airfields in Immokalee and Everglades City, but not the Naples Airport, which is separate. While the Marco operation has done everything possible to make their facilities user-friendly, said Lobb, it comes down to convenience.

“The nature of general aviation is you’re going to fly into the airport that’s closest,” he said.