TAMPA — Smart design has kindled travelers’ love of Tampa International Airport since the days of the Nixon administration, putting TIA near the top of survey after survey of customer satisfaction.
But the romance has dimmed for at least a small percentage of fliers who have spoken up since the airport unveiled its biggest expansion in decades: a new rental car center, connected to the main terminal by the 1.4-mile-long SkyConnect train.
"The new rental car terminal/building/experience really detracts from what used to be one of my favorite airports," Dr. Athe Tsibris, an infectious disease physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, said in an April 5 email to the airport. "Literally every part of renting a car is now harder. … I’m sorry to be negative in this instance, but this was a step backwards for the airport."
And Tsibris told the Tampa Bay Times he was not alone: "It was a topic of conversation among the passengers on the monorail train to the new rental car facility."
About 200 passengers have felt strongly enough to send the airport an email or post comments to social media about the changes. By comparison, more than 3 million people have flown in or out of Tampa International since Feb. 14, when the new projects made their debut.
The reviews have been mixed.
"LOVING the new rental car center, SkyConnect" train and new remote bag drop off, tweeted Joy Bride of Peoria, Ill. "Other airports can learn a lot from you."
"I am so impressed with what the Tampa airport has done in their expansion," Bride, who has visited the bay area six times in the last year, told the Times in a follow-up email. "Rental car pickup was super easy, and the return was just as easy (the signage to the center was perfect). I had actually allowed extra time because of the new facility but found it took less time than usual."
Through April 9, the airport had logged 175 emails or comments on social media about its changes, and the Times found a few more on its own. Emails tended to be more critical. Facebook posts and tweets included more praise and attaboys.
The top recurring theme was that fliers preferred renting a car in the old location, next to baggage claim. The rest of the five most common reactions were mixed: Some fliers said service had improved. Others criticized the train as too jerky and unpredictable. Still others preferred the train to the old shuttle buses.
The airport recognizes how much people liked having the rental car center next to the main terminal, but "it was no longer possible" to keep it there as both the bay area and the airport grow, airport spokesman Danny Valentine said.
The relocation is part of a $2 billion, three-phase plan to enable the airport to accommodate up to 34 million passengers a year — 73 percent more than last year — in its existing footprint. In March, the airport saw nearly 2.2 million passengers, its busiest month ever and nearly 11 percent more than its previous record month.
"This needed to happen," Valentine said. "We’re growing rapidly… and we need to get ahead of it to handle the growth of the future."
Half the comments came in during the first 10 days after the new projects opened, which suggests to airport officials that people are getting used to the changes as the airport has tweaked its signs, passenger flows and procedures.
Not Bill O’Neil, though.
O’Neil, 73, said he’s flown through Tampa International many times for business and pleasure, but his trip home to Buffalo, N.Y., on Feb. 17 — three days after the opening — could be his last.
"This was one of the worst experiences that I’ve ever had at an airport," he said of his flight home from a two-week stay at a condo on Indian Rocks Beach.
O’Neil has a bad foot, but he said there was no assistance at the new rental car center for people who have difficulty walking, nor could he find a wheelchair there. Getting on the SkyConnect train, he saw a guy’s backpack get caught in the closing doors. As the train rounded a curve, "almost everyone fell over." The new layout meant a longer walk through the terminal.
"The process used to be you dropped off the rental car, you walked across the street — bang — you’re in the terminal," he said. "I’m seriously thinking of not returning to Tampa because of the airport. I’m starting to talk to rental people in the Sarasota area."
In response, airport officials said rental car center employees since have been trained to help passengers get wheelchairs when they need them. Also, the train is now spending more time at each station in the hopes of allowing passengers to board without having to rush in as the doors close.
Janet Carter, an IT professional who lives in Wesley Chapel, said she misses the shuttle buses, which "where always right there" when she got off the elevator at the economy garage. In contrast, fliers who park in the economy garage now take the elevator to the ground floor, then walk or take a moving sidewalk to a different set of elevators to go up to the SkyConnect train platform.
Carter, 50, also said riding a crowded SkyConnect train was unnerving because she was in the middle of a crowded car, away from its three central support poles. At 5-foot-2, she said she had difficulty reaching an overhead handrail. (The train also has handrails just below waist level under the windows.)
"I didn’t feel safe, to be honest," Carter said.
The new rental car center is similar to facilities found at major airports around the world, Valentine said.
In the United States, for example, passengers take shuttle buses or trains to rental car centers or lots in Miami, Dallas, St. Louis, San Diego, San Francisco and Washington D.C.’s Dulles airport, among others. Airports that still have at least some rental counters in or near baggage claim include Orlando, Portland, Honolulu and Pittsburgh. In Nashville, passengers leave the terminal and walk to the rental car center.
Tampa’s rental center is a five-minute train ride from the terminal, with doors that open directly onto customer service counters with twice as many rental companies as in the old place.
While there have been some complaints about the SkyConnect train, Valentine said the airport has received an almost equal number of compliments from people who like it more than the old shuttle buses.
In response to feedback from passengers, the airport has:
• Adjusted the trains’ acceleration and deceleration.
• Increased the amount of time each train spends in the station so passengers have more time to get on and off.
• Added digital and printed signs in the main terminal, economy garage and rental car center.
• Placed stanchions to help with passenger flow on and off the train.
• Changed the trains’ recorded messages to help passengers find their way and to remind them to hang on.
• Added customer service representatives at each station to help customers with directions. At this point, the guides are still at the main terminal.
Two people also complained that the train broke down, causing one flier who had 50 minutes to get to the gate after parking in the economy garage to miss a flight. One train, Valentine said, was reported out of service at 12:38 p.m. on Feb. 21. It was rolling again at 1:03 p.m. In addition, the airport has received one report of someone falling on a train, but there have been no injuries.
"The SkyConnect travels nearly 50 miles an hour," Valentine said, "so passengers do need to be sure to hold on when it’s moving."
Contact Richard Danielson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times
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