First UK flight in 19 months gets welcoming committee

Worst September for tourist collection taxes since 2015, minus the pandemic

ORLANDO, Fla. – It’s not often that an airline puts an entire welcome team at the arrival area of the airport. But then again, this hasn’t happened since March of 2020—a flight from the U.K. landing at Orlando International Airport.

The Virgin Atlantic flight that touched down just before 2:30pm Monday was the first in 19 months.

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Many of the returning international visitors seemed to be as desperate to come back to Central Florida as the hotels and restaurants and shops, especially in the tourist district, were to have them.

Orange County Comptroller Phil Diamond said September wasn’t a good month for Tourist Development Tax (TDT) collection compared to pre-pandemic years. It was the worst September since 2015, not including the pandemic, because of the COVID-19 surge but also because of the lack of international tourists.

“When you’re just traveling overnight for the weekend, you’re not going to spend as much money, you don’t need to,” Diamond said. “You’re not flying. You don’t need to spend as much on hotels or on food. But if you’re flying here from England, or Asia, or Japan, or anyplace else that takes a lot of traveling, you’re going to spend a bunch of money. Studies have shown the international travelers spend a lot more because their trips to the U.S. are more consequential for them than a trip across the state for you and me might be.”

OIA Airport CEO Phil Brown said the Virgin flight from Heathrow Monday afternoon was full. Next week, British Airways will start flying into OIA again.

“Domestic numbers are strong, continue to be strong, so now we need to keep providing the Orlando experience and helping people to come to the best destination in the world,” Brown said.

Some stranded passengers over the last several months—the ones affected by the Spirit, then Southwest, then American Airlines meltdowns—did not get the “Orlando Experience.”

Brown said OIA is ramping up for the holidays.

“We’ve got a lot of people have been focused on this,” Brown said. “We’ve got additional people in the Federal Inspection Station and Customs and Border Protection. So it’s hopefully back to where we were in February of 2020. But we still got work to do, because I think going forward three to five years out we’re going to have a lot of demand so we have to provide capacity for that.”

Brown said OIA will be a busy place over the next two months.

“Last year was not a very good holiday, but we expect the holidays (this year) to be on par with what we saw in 2019,” Brown said. “What we’ve said (to the airlines that’ve struggled recently) is you understand the market, you live and die in the market, you got to meet the demand. They know that better than we do and they face those issues every day. So I don’t know that I have to explain to the CEOs that you have to get your A-game going.”

About the Author:

Erik von Ancken anchors and reports for WKMG-TV News 6 (CBS) in Orlando and is a two-time Emmy award-winning journalist in the prestigious and coveted "On-Camera Talent" categories for both anchoring and reporting. Erik joined the News 6 News Team in 2003 days after the tragic loss of space shuttle Columbia.