Do you hate flying during the holidays? One commercial pilot says passengers have a great deal these days.

Carol Sugars has been a commercial pilot for UPS since the 1990s, flying international routes.

LONGWOOD – Passenger airlines frequently make the news, but usually it’s not for the kind of reasons that make the airlines’ public relations departments happy.

There have been the terrorist attacks, from 9-11 to incidents that wind up being known as attacks by the “shoe bomber” or the “underwear bomber.”

There are passenger complaints that any semblance of leg room is disappearing and that meals no longer get served.

And then there are those incidents where passengers got stuck on a plane for up to 10 hours on the runway, unable to reach their gate, prompting Congress to pass a passenger’s bill of rights.

At a time when holiday traveling is at a premium, the airlines might be bracing for another slew of “What’s wrong with the airlines?” stories. Carol Sugars, though, thinks the public needs some educating about how the system actually works.

Take, for example, complaints about how airlines are putting less and less of an emphasis on comfort. Less room between seats, no meals, none of the creature comforts that passengers once expected when they fly.

Consider what you’re getting instead, Sugars noted: affordable pricing. Airlines are getting rid of the frills to keep the price of the tickets competitive.

“In the 1950s, we invented the jet airliner,” she said. “It became significantly quicker to fly. As the industry expanded, it became more affordable to fly. Up until the 1970s, flying on an airplane was a big deal. You did it maybe once a year on vacation.”

Today, some passengers fly multiple times a year – if the price is right, she added.

“The airlines provide a service and take you and all your bags from A to B, which is all you want to do,” Sugars said. “It all depends on price. People are prepared to sit there and not get peanuts if they can get to New York for $75. It’s mass transit.”

Sugars knows a thing or two about the airline industry. Specializing in Avionics/Aerospace Systems engineering, Sugars has been involved in various design and development projects involving radar, communications, noise cancellation technology and aviation fuels.

In the past few decades, Sugars has logged more than 10,000 hours of flight time and flown more than 50 different types of aircraft all over the world, from light single engine to four engine heavy jets. She holds licenses for Airline Transport Pilot, Flight Engineer, Flight Instructor (FAA Gold Seal) and Ground Instructor.

It’s a field the native of Ilkeston, England, never expected to get into. Back in the 1960s, she noted, it was strictly a man’s job.

“I’ve been interested in aviation since I was young, as long as I can remember,” said Sugars, who now lives in Longwood. “A major factor of life in the 1960s was the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union, and it was reflected in television shows, things like ‘Star Trek.’  Space travel leads into aviation, and I see aviation as a very science-oriented career.”

Although Sugars went to a good school, in the 1960s, “the girls weren’t very career-oriented,” while the boys had the option of pursuing an apprenticeship with Rolls Royce, a factory in the nearby town of Derby that made aircraft engines.

“To me it was such a distant dream that I didn’t pursue aviation,” she said. “There were no jobs for females as pilots back then.”

Instead, Sugars took a different path, and joined the Royal British Air Force, which enabled her to take a non-combat role in the field of Air Traffic Control. She did it for six years, then left, “because my career progression wasn’t what I wanted it to be.”

She worked temporarily for a financial firm, but that wasn’t what she really wanted, either.

“I got in my car one day and drove to the airport and, looking around, said ‘I’m going to learn to be a pilot,’ “ she said.

Carol Sugars drove to the airport one day, looked around, and decided she wanted to be a pilot.

Sugars went to work for a foreign company that provided Air Traffic Control services, and saved up enough money to relocate to the United States, where she took flying lessons in Missouri – a “fairly typical civilian flight route” to getting a commercial pilot’s license, she said.

In the years that followed, Sugars flew a medical helicopter in St. Louis, then did freight flying in Kansas, delivering items as diverse as blood supplies to labs and movies to local cinemas – “the daily things that go to a small community,” she said.

She also flew auto parts to plants across Michigan, a job that got her into jets and flying time sensitive cargo.  It also lead to a relocation to Fort Lauderdale, where she began training to be a flight engineer in Miami.  Then in the late 1990s, she was hired by UPS to fly Boeing 757s and Boeing 767s on international routes.

One of her proudest moments over the years was when Sugars, acting as chief pilot for Green Flight International, wrote and conducted flight test engineering programs to enable experimental jet flight operations on biofuels. In November 2007 she made the world’s first flight of a jet aircraft powered solely by a 100 percent renewable biofuel, followed in 2008 by the first U.S. coast to coast jet flight using the same renewable fuel technology.

“I made the genuine world’s first flight on biofuel,” she said. “The project was done not as an engineering development, it was done primarily to raise awareness. We need to switch to alternative fuels.”

She did it flying an aircraft made in 1968.

“It was an experimental flight test program, and yes there were risks and unknowns,” she said. “But when you ask the pilot, ‘Were you scared, were there fears,’ physical dangers are relatively easy to predict in aviation. The major fear that I had was the experiment would be a failure. There was nothing inordinately dangerous about it.”

The same is true when people read about or see television news coverage of planes that crash.  With the exception of terrorist attacks, flights that crash can always be blamed on human error, she said.

“All of them are ultimately human failures,” she said. “The plane wasn’t properly maintained – human failure. It wasn’t properly designed – human failure. They’re all human failings.”

Although Sugars’ career has been in commercial aviation, she’s well aware of the concerns and complaints that people have about passenger flights. She said passengers should worry less how comfortable a flight is if the ticket price fits within their budget.

“It’s comfortable, it’s efficient, and you get good service,’ she said. “They’re reliable and they run on time.”

Sugars doesn’t think Congress needed to approve legislation banning an airline from keeping passengers on a plane for hours on the runway.

“The reason you don’t get off the airplane is you can’t get to your gate,” she said. “We have drastically increased the number of airplanes compared to keeping the same number of gates. It’s exactly like pulling into a parking lot that’s full. You can’t get a space until someone backs out. You’ve got to cure the disease, not the symptoms. Get more gates, or have an air traffic control system that can handle the flow.”

And what about passenger complaints about intrusive security measures – everything from removing their shoes to getting a pat down from security workers to going through screening devices that leave you feeling naked in the eyes of the airports? Are these efforts really making people safer?

No, Sugars said, and she called all these measures another bad idea from an over regulating government.

“It’s window dressing,” she said. “What you go through at the airport is window dressing. Pilots were taught, prior to 9-11, if you got hijacked, you comply. Typically when a plane got hijacked, people wanted to get somewhere – ‘Take me to Cuba or I’ll slit this woman’s throat.’ “

Suicide bombers changed that, and today, she said, the major security device has been to make it virtually impossible for a terrorist to get into the cockpit to take control of the plane.

“We’re secured the cockpit,” she said. “We’ve armored the cockpit door. The doors are now bulletproof. Now the pilots can stay in the cockpit securely while people in the cabin are being murdered.”

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Holiday Gala helps raise funds for special children, the director says.

LOUGHMAN – There are folks who just can’t contain their excitement when they go to a major theme park like Disney, and act like they’re reliving their childhood all over again.

Then there’s the ones who save up all year to take a theme park vacation, and spend the entire time complaining about the long lines, crowding parking, and ticket prices.

For Rich Mergo, watching one young boy visit Disney recently turned out to an experience he’ll never forget. The boy couldn’t have been happier at the theme park.

“He was the happiest he could be,” Mergo said. “It was great to see him smiling and having fun.” 

Rich Mergo, director of development for the Sunshine Foundation's Dream Village, says their recent holiday gala raised more than $30,000 to help children.

The boy had come to Central Florida to visit the Sunshine Foundation’s Dream Village, where Mergo is the director of development. The Sunshine Foundation is a charitable organization that answers the dreams and wishes of chronically ill, disabled and abused children. This one young boy, though, left a very strong impression on Mergo.

“This little boy was really special,” he said. “He had come down with swine flu, and had both legs amputated on Christmas Eve last year. Since then, he’s been dealing with the depression and trauma of what he went through.”

The boy’s family brought him to Dream Village in the hope that a trip to the local theme parks would allow him to forget, however briefly, the agonizing medical challenges he was facing. And it seemed to work perfectly, Mergo. He was no longer a physically challenged child coping with a tough medical condition, but an excited boy ready to have fun.

“Everyone treated him like a normal kid,” Mergo said. “We let him ride every roller coaster there was. Some theme parks won’t let kids with prosthetics go on roller coasters, but this time they did. And it was great to see him so happy.”

The Dream’s Village recently held its first formal Holiday Gala on Dec. 4 at the Reunion Resort & Club, an event that Mergo said proved to be quite festive, with live and silent auctions for items that included an XBOX 360 with Kinect, round trip airfare on SouthWest Airlines and AirTran Airways, a ride for four people on the GoodYear Blimp, and dinner for two with a Limo ride and tickets to the upcoming Brad Paisley concert at the Amway Center in downtown Orlando.

It was also a fund-raising event for the non-profit agency, with a special Dream Auction that raised $5,000. That amount, Mergo said, was “enough to answer a dream” of another child hoping to visit Disney.

“There were 70-plus auction items, and overall we raised a little over $30,000,” Mergo said. “It was a great first step for us.”

He offered a special thanks to “all the volunteers that helped plan and run the gala. Without their help, this event would not have been possible. It was challenging  …  and turned out really nice.”

The event was attended by several members of the Kissimmee/Osceola County Chamber of Commerce, including Mary Ellen Kerber, who manages the Formosa Gardens shopping plaza on U.S. 192 in Four Corners. Kerber said the gala gave the guests a truly unique opportunity to meet some of the children being helped by Dream Village. Anyone who attended the gala and took part in the auction, she added, knew their support was going to a great cause.

“It really touched our hearts that night,” she said.

Mergo said the “number one dream of the children we serve is to visit the Central Florida theme parks,” and that the folks who supported the gala also helped those kids.

“Since opening 20 years ago, the Dream Village has welcomed over 20,000 special children,” Mergo said.

For more information on the Sunshine Foundation’s Dream Village and its future events, email Mergo at rich@sunshinefoundation.org, call 800-457-1976, or log on to www.sunshinefoundation.org.

Business leaders question the message, delivery behind two sales tax defeats.

CHAMPIONSGATE – For municipal leaders in Osceola and Polk counties, it all seemed to make perfect sense: create a special taxing system to help fund much-needed road improvements and to expand mass ransportation to help people find jobs.

There was just one challenge: county leaders were asking voters to approve ballot referendums to raise taxes for these projects. With the economy still struggling and the unemployment rate stubbornly high, voters in both counties solidly defeated the two referendums, sending elected officials back to the drawing board. Where they go from here is still an open question. 

Cars and trucks zip along U.S. 27 in Polk County, but don't expect to see buses anytime soon in this area near Davenport and ChampionsGate.

Doug Guetzloe, leader of the grassroots anti-tax group Ax the Tax, noted that a third ballot referendum to raise taxes for a rail project also lost in Hillsborogh County, making it three in a row. Ax the Tax was involved in fighting all three referendums, Guetzloe said. 

“We did some direct mail and some robo calls down there in Polk,” he said. “We figured it would go down anyway, but we helped add to that.”

The Polk County referendum would have imposed a half-cent sales surtax to create a single mass transit system that would serve the entire county. It lost solidly, 62 percent to 38 percent.

Tom Harris, a member of the Polk County School Board, said it was proposed because bus systems exist in cities like Lakeland and Winter Haven, but do not reach out to more rural parts of Polk County.

“There’s not a countywide bus system, so it’s real difficult for people in remote areas to get around,” he said.

Creating a bus route that serves all of Polk County, he said, would make it easier for residents to find jobs, regardless of where they live.

“If you solve the transportation issue, you can help solve the economic issue,” Harris said.

Polk County leaders also pushed the referendum because the county’s mass transit systems are now funded by the federal government. But solid population growth in Polk County over the past decade means Polk is now classified by the federal government as an urban county, while the federal transportation funding it gets are intended for smaller, more rural counties.

Harris said Polk’s municipal leaders are looking at the possibility of putting the issue back on the ballot in 2012.

“There is a conversation in Polk County on addressing it two years from now,” he said.

But Guetzloe said the defeat of all three measures should send a pretty loud signal to county commissioners that voters already feel taxed enough and don’t have faith in these proposals.

“Look at Osceola County,” Guetzloe said. “They lost. In Osceola, it was 72 percent again. We had an active Ax the Tax effort down there, too.” 

Doug Guetzloe says Ax the Tax delivered the right message: No new taxes!

Sonny Buoncervello, a Realtor in the Celebration area, said Osceola leaders didn’t get the message out that if voters raised their sales tax, tourists would pay a good share of the tax hike, and that the road improvements are desperately needed.  He noted that the business community actively campaigned against a statewide referendum, Amendment 4, which would have required voter approval before land use plans could be altered to allow more commercial development. Amendment 4 lost statewide in a landslide.

But business leaders were not as vocal in supporting the Osceola road tax, Buoncervello said.

“Amendment 4 had a lot of exposure, and we all knew to vote against it,” he said. “But I don’t think there was a strong enough effort to get the average voter to understand  (the Osceola tax hike referendum). You really had to get into people’s psyches to explain it. I don’t know if we really educated the public that tourists would pay a large share of the tax.”

Gene Terrico is the manager of Street Outdoor-Osceola County, a program founded with the West 192 BeautiVacation Project to address advertising needs along West U.S. 192, from Four Corners to Walt Disney World to Kissimmee. He said while road improvements are needed in Osceola County, the timing of the referendum couldn’t have been worse.

“It was a bad year for a tax,” he said. “No new taxes, it’s a one liner that works. It’s awkward, because I’m not sure there was a listening side to the message. People were just not interested, and that’s the day we live in now.”

Harris said a new law prohibiting elected officials from spending money to promote or defeat a ballot referendum has made it more difficult for county leaders to get out the message about how the tax hike would help the community. That means they have to rely more on private sector supporters to get the message out.

“Legislatively, the landscape has changed,” Harris said. “It kind of ties our hands.”

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