Lakeland, Florida- The first commercial flights took off and landed at Lakeland Linder Regional Airport Thursday. Direct Air began non-stop charter flights between four cities: Myrtle Beach, SC; Hagerstown, MD; Niagara Falls, NY; and Springfield, IL. Service from Lakeland to Plattsburg, NY and San Juan, PR is scheduled to begin in November.
A crowd gathered Thursday afternoon to watch the first flight, a Boeing 737 land in Lakeland. The plane was ironically several hours late due to mechanical problems.
"This is like history being made here at the Lakeland airport, and we just wanted to be part of it," said John Vaclav, a long time employee for Eastern Airlines.
The airport spent $2 million dollars renovating the passenger terminal to prepare for the new service. Improvements include to security checkpoints, ticket counters, and a baggage claim area.
Airport officials say nearly 14,000 round trip tickets have already been sold for flights to and from Lakeland which is quickly becoming one of the airline's most popular destinations.
The airport markets its location as "in the middle of it all" between the Bay area beaches and the theme parks of Orlando.
Airport director Gene Conrad says the airport isn't trying to be the next Tampa International or Orlando Samford. "We're just looking to be Lakeland Linder. We're looking to serve a specific niche... and do a great job at it."
Conrad says in the next five to ten years, he wouldn't be surprised to see international charters flying from Lakeland to destinations in Europe or other locations around the globe.
Beau Zimmer, 10 News