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CEO at Tampa International wants to wine and dine airline executives

In recent years, Tampa International Airport's past and current chief executives each flew to New York to brief bond rating agencies on Wall Street.

Louis Miller bunked down at the historic Roosevelt Hotel in midtown Manhattan for $232 a night in May 2009. Almost exactly two years later, current TIA CEO Joe Lopano made a pricier choice: the Andaz, smack in the heart of the financial district. The cost for one night: $628.29.

Lopano also has embraced wining and dining airline executives to build relationships that could lead to more flights at TIA. That included a $584 dinner bill with three top AirTran Airways executives Jan. 20 in Orlando.

Lopano's bosses on the aviation board so far have endorsed his "spend money to make money" approach. They say he was hired to build up Tampa International's puny schedule of nonstop flights to overseas destinations and the West Coast. Schmoozing clients, they insist, is part of the game.

"We're running a business, and you've got to entertain,'' said aviation board member Joseph Diaco. He defended the big dinner bill for Lopano, AirTran CEO Robert Fornaro and two top lieutenants at the Capital Grille in Orlando.

"You can't go to dinner with four or five people and not pay $500,'' Diaco said. "It's a reasonable amount for anything halfway decent. That's the way corporations do business.''

In an interview Tuesday, Lopano said he and the AirTran brass spent the dinner talking about potential new international routes for the airport.

"One of the principles here is you have to have a good relationship with airline executives,'' he said.

What do regular people think about spending nearly $600 in public money for a fancy dinner?

"I'm learning about this market,'' said Lopano, who took charge of the airport Jan. 1 after working from 1996 until the end of last year in Dallas, where he was responsible for attracting new flights. "I know that I may very well need to be sensitive to that in the future.''

Likewise, for his choice of hotels, although there were few other choices that night in May during Fleet Week in New York, he said.

He emphasized the bigger role of expanding a region's airline service to stimulate economic development.

"A CEO of an airline doesn't go to Hardee's for dinner,'' Lopano said. ''We're trying to get someone to commit a $150 million aircraft to our community. We're asking them to make a major commitment, and we want to treat these people well.''

Tampa International is publicly owned. The Aviation Authority runs on revenue generated by airline fees, rent from tenants and parking fees in airport garages. It doesn't collect taxes to pay for operations but receives grants funded by federal and state taxes.

Miller, who led the airport for nearly 14 years, was famously frugal when it came to his own travel and entertaining big shots. He resisted the trend among airports to pay hefty incentives for airlines to start new service. Critics argued that was a big reason he couldn't attract an airline to launch Tampa nonstop flights to Europe or Latin America.

Trudy Carson, the airport's former air service director, traveled to airline conferences and made calls on domestic and foreign air carriers. In her last year, she rarely took airline brass out to eat and spent modestly when she did. Lopano fired her in March.

Miller resigned under pressure from the authority board in March 2010. He landed the top job at Atlanta's airport, the world's largest.

Following Lopano's recommendation, board members voted in June to offer airlines financial incentives for launching new service. An airline starting daily flights to Europe with a widebody 767 jet can get nearly $2.5 million in airport fee waivers and advertising money over two years. Shorter international flights and new domestic service qualify for smaller incentives.

Lopano has proposed increasing the marketing department's travel budget nearly three-fold to $150,000 for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1. His top staff has already hosted a couple of big-ticket nights out for guests, including:

• A dinner May 3 for eight airline employees and four aviation authority executives at Tampa's Mise En Place restaurant to celebrate JetBlue's first Tampa-San Juan flights. Cost: $1,033.

• Dinner for two authority vice presidents and Robert Hancock, who directs a conference that brings together airline planners and airports. The event, Network USA 2012, is scheduled for Tampa. The bill from Armani's: $315.

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

CEO at Tampa International wants to wine and dine airline executives 08/31/11 [Last modified: Thursday, September 1, 2011 12:25am]

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