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At Tampa International Airport, will overseas flights draw passengers?

Pressure is building for more international flights at Tampa International Airport, where the choice of destinations usually includes three: London, Toronto and Grand Cayman Island.

A consultant's report highlights a long-running debate on new international routes —call it the chicken-and-egg question. As in, which comes first, the demand or the new, more convenient flight?

The airport hired the consultant last year to target promising nonstop routes. Seabury APG crunched data on places where bay area residents travel now, connecting through big airline hubs or other Florida airports, typically Orlando and Miami.

Then the consultants picked the three top destinations without year-round flights from Tampa: Frankfurt, Germany; Montreal; and San Jose, Costa Rica.

They may not make your travel wish list. But the idea was to identify routes with enough customers to attract an airline's interest.

Unfortunately, the numbers aren't big enough to wow anyone. Daily, only 61 locals fly each way between Tampa Bay and Montreal. Frankfurt (55) and San Jose (42) generate even fewer travelers.

The smallest plane flying trans-Atlantic would likely be a 220-seat Boeing wide body. So, local travelers couldn't even fill a quarter of the jet each day.

But some argue the flights would build the demand.

"There was no demand for the iPod before it was getting marketed," said Jason Busto, a Tampa businessman and persistent critic of the airport's efforts to attract international carriers.

Last month, a member of the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority board picked up the issue. Steven Burton, managing partner of the Tampa law firm Broad and Cassel, persuaded the board to name an airport marketing committee that will look into new initiatives for international service.

Destinations identified by the consultant ''show some potential," said Burton, head of the committee he proposed. "I'm asking Seabury to dig deeper" for data on the routes.

Tampa International plans to pitch the proposed routes to airlines, said Louis Miller, the airport's executive director. Still, they won't be slam dunks. Frankfurt could work if a carrier flew two or three times a week until traffic built up. But business travelers, who prefer daily flights, could be a hard sell. Montreal has connecting service from Tampa by major airlines that hold on to regular customers through frequent flier reward programs. San Jose, Costa Rica's capital, has two advantages: It can be reached with smaller 100-seat jets and serves as a hub for other Central American destinations, Miller said.

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384

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A Seabury executive makes a presentation at the aviation authority's monthly meeting at 8 a.m. Thursday in the board room on Level 3 at Tampa International.

At Tampa International Airport, will overseas flights draw passengers? 01/05/10 [Last modified: Thursday, January 7, 2010 1:39pm]
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