For years, American Airlines was the only game in town if you wanted to fly nonstop between Tampa and Puerto Rico.
On Tuesday, low-cost carrier AirTran Airways started twice-daily flights to San Juan from Tampa International Airport. And next month, JetBlue begins flying the route once a day and will add a second flight in June.
Advance bookings on AirTran are very strong, said John Kirby, AirTran's senior director of strategic planning and scheduling. The first two flights from San Juan were sold out.
Barring another spike in fuel prices, AirTran should make money on the new route with its 137-seat Boeing 737s flying 80 percent full of customers paying $110 to $120 each way, Kirby said.
American had one nonstop flight each day to San Juan and one that returned to Tampa International Airport around midnight. Fares were sky high, as much as $1,000 round trip. American dropped the route last month.
"It was terrible service," said Cucho Rodriguez, who flies to San Juan once a month for his medical equipment business in Tampa. "They took customers for granted."
Tampa Bay is home to 168,000 Puerto Ricans, making them the area's largest resident Hispanic population, said airport spokeswoman Brenda Geoghagan.
But those locals regularly drove to Orlando for cheaper, more convenient San Juan flights when American held a monopoly in Tampa, said Victor Padilla, vice president of the free magazine Latin Times. He recalls fares regularly running $600 to $700 for a round trip. "It was always a big problem, the schedule and the price," he said.
The passenger numbers also show that high prices and limited flights forced many Puerto Ricans flying to Florida to chose Orlando instead of Tampa. Only 14 percent of American Airlines' customers were Puerto Rico residents. In Orlando, where AirTran and discount carrier Jet Blue fly to San Juan, it's 40 percent.
Under new CEO Joe Lopano, Tampa International officials are pressing to add new nonstop destinations. Consultants are sifting through flight data to figure out places where Tampa Bay travelers go, either though other airports or on connecting flights.
The job of recruiting new flights falls to the airport's new marketing vice president, Christopher Minner, hired from Dallas-Fort Worth International, Lopano's former employer.
"By the end of the month, we'll have our hit list," he said Tuesday.
Steve Huettel can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3384.