With the SkyConnect train (and more), Tampa International Airport marks a big new beginning, but also one small ending

Published February 14 2018

TAMPA — Tony Facciponte was just pulling away from the curb Tuesday morning when he spotted the preppy young man rushing to make the shuttle. So he stopped, opened the door and smiled.

"A prince among men," the latecomer told Facciponte as he hopped aboard the Tampa International Airport shuttle bus.

For Facciponte, 67, one of 40 or so shuttle bus drivers, it was a routine bit of customer service, the kind of small gesture made dozens of times a day. But it also was the last day for the shuttle service, so even a casual "thank you" took on the air of a valediction.

That’s because once the SkyConnect train starts running today, the airport will end shuttle bus service between its main terminal and its economy garages about a mile away.

"There goes my replacement," Facciponte said a few minutes later, nodding toward an elevated SkyConnect train running parallel to his route. The train will carry eight times as many passengers as one of the shuttles, make the trip several minutes faster and reduce traffic congestion around the airport.

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With the end of the shuttle buses, most of the drivers — who work for an airport contractor, ABM, based in New York City — will move to temporary jobs. The airport has hired a couple as traffic specialists. Others will give directions to passengers at the garages and the airport’s massive new rental car center or help at baggage claim. They’ll work through the transition from old to new and will be temporarily reassigned to the systems maintenance team through spring break.

Beyond that, plans are not as set, but airport officials say they will work as best they can to match interested drivers to new roles.

"We’re very sensitive to the fact that some people will be displaced by the new technology," airport spokesman Danny Valentine said Tuesday. "Anyone who expresses an interest" in a different job at the airport, "we’re committed to giving them a look."

One thing the airport’s $1 billion expansion has done is create jobs. Three years of construction so far required a workforce of 10,500, with about 18 percent of the spending going to contractors owned by women or minorities. A new team of 34 will operate and maintain the electric SkyConnect trains. That includes 20 technicians making $50,000 a year and three engineers making $70,000 a year.

Meanwhile, the aviation authority itself has added 81 new positions over the last six years. Rental car companies are bringing eight new brands onto the airport’s property. An expanded roster of concessionaires will employ 255 additional workers. Forty percent of the airport’s restaurants are now local.

Several shuttle drivers said they made something less than $9 an hour. Yes, there were tips for helping load and unload passengers’ bags, but they varied. A slow day could produce as little as $30 in tips. A busy day during the holidays might mean $100.

The other benefits of the job included getting a chance to talk to a lot of people, answer questions and be helpful.

"This is a decent job," said Roberto St. John, 54, a driver since October. "A lot of the drivers are going to miss it."

Still, several drivers and passengers acknowledged Tuesday the end of shuttle bus service is the kind of disruption that comes with change.

"It’s modernism, I guess," said Rafael Morales, 69, who caught one of the buses after a flight home to visit his daughter and granddaughter in Houston. "I’m an engineer, so I know what progress means."

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Contact Richard Danielson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times