TAMPA — Just how many flights to foreign cities Tampa International Airport could land may depend on what local businesses are willing to do to lure carriers.
On Thursday, the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority, which governs TIA, discussed a strategy of getting more international flights for an airport that ranks 21st in the nation for them.
The airport's executive director, Louis Miller, said he will ask groups like the Tampa Bay Partnership to survey companies about international travel and what they might be willing to do to attract options.
Miller is doing this at the prodding of Steve Burton, a Tampa lawyer appointed to the authority by Gov. Charlie Crist last year. Last month, things got heated when Burton complained at an authority meeting that TIA wasn't doing enough to attract international air travel. Board members Ken Hagan, a Hillsborough County commissioner, and Joseph Diaco, a physician, joined Burton in voting for a committee that would aim to attract flights to more international locales.
For board member Pam Iorio, the mayor of Tampa, Burton's move was a discourteous end-run around Miller. "Disrespectful," Iorio said of Burton's plan.
But on Thursday, Burton was congratulated for sharpening the focus on the issue.
"I commend you for bringing this to the board," chairman Al Austin told Burton.
A consultant, Joel Antolini, told the board that there was room for improvement in attracting more international flights. But not much, he added.
The problem, Antolini said, is that in a bad economy, it's hard to persuade carriers to come to an airport with an unproven track record in filling intercontinental planes.
Even though Tampa Bay has more residents than Orlando, it doesn't have the theme parks that make Orlando's airport rank so highly in international flights.
Of Tampa's 1,800 passengers a day, about 224 are headed to foreign destinations. That's a meager total to support much of anything.
The problem is the cost of flying. About 35 passengers a day are headed for Paris from TIA, via connecting flights, Antolini said.
That's far short of the 219 that are needed to fill a flight. A carrier would lose money each time it flies without the number of passengers to earn a profit.
But there are other destinations that could be more viable, Antolini said. Latin America lures quite a bit more traffic, and in some cases, TIA may be underserved.
Still, it would be nice if companies that might benefit from more direct flights to foreign cities could chip in to subsidize flights that might not otherwise be profitable.
He said companies in Portland, Ore., contributed $5 million in subsidies to encourage more international flights.
Miller said he will survey companies to see what they might contribute, but board members didn't have high expectations.
"It would be a surprise if we could get businesses to contribute, in this environment," Iorio said.
Still, Burton said he was encouraged by the direction the board took in thinking of new ways to spur more flights.
"Costa Rica, San Juan, it's really exciting that we could end up with direct flights there," he said. "Now we're really diving into this."