Loyal customers were missing USA 3000 even before the popular discount airline's last flight took off from St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport on Monday night.
In a time of widespread discontent with airline service, imagine this: an air travel experience that people actually like.
"The airport's more convenient than Tampa, it's very affordable, the planes run on time — it's just all-around better," said Theresa Schenk of Ann Arbor, Mich., as she prepared to leave for home Friday after visiting her mother in New Port Richey.
Her mom, Theresa Levinski, all but pleaded for USA 3000 to reconsider. "I know they have to raise prices, but the convenience is worth it," she said. "I'll buy stock in USA 3000."
Owned by the parent of Apple Tours in suburban Philadelphia, the airline said in May that skyrocketing fuel prices forced it to retreat from all Florida destinations except Fort Myers after the summer.
The news shocked officials at the small, quiet Pinellas airport, where USA 3000 was the second-largest carrier, trailing only Allegiant Air. Some 150,000 passengers a year flew the airline from St. Petersburg-Clearwater International, nearly one-third of the airport's total.
USA 3000's departure will cost the airport $1.35-million annually in airline charges and indirect revenue such as parking and concessions. That won't require staff cuts, service reductions or a slowdown in the ongoing terminal renovation, airport director Noah Lagos said.
But the loss leaves fans of the airport without flights to big-city destinations such as Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Allegiant, the only major airline left, flies to the likes of Allentown, Pa., and Chattanooga, Tenn.
Most travelers waiting for Friday's flight to Detroit resigned themselves to crossing the Howard Frankland Bridge to Tampa International Airport and buying a pricier ticket on Northwest, Spirit or AirTran.
"I could take a limo over there and that's $50 added onto the trip," said Stephen Hendzak, a retired environmental engineer for Pinellas County. He's accustomed to riding the bus from his home in St. Petersburg to catch a USA 3000 flight to Philadelphia each month.
Others pondered alternative routes. Maybe trekking to the airline's last Florida outpost, Fort Myers. Perhaps an Allegiant flight to Flint, Mich., or Toledo, Ohio, and a long, long drive.
Airport volunteers set up tables in recent weeks and buttonholed customers to sign a petition urging USA 3000 to reconsider St. Petersburg-Clearwater when fuel prices come down. They collected more than 5,000 signatures.
Lagos is trying to set up a meeting with airline executives to deliver the signatures and make a personal pitch. "I think we will see — make that we will see — them back again," he said. "We just don't know when."
Steve Huettel can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3384.