Officials at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International were understandably proud when the 54-year-old airport installed its first jet bridges in November.
The devices keep passengers out of the rain while boarding and departing airliners. They help people with disabilities fly without climbing stairs or using a lift. They're among the amenities that distinguish between big city and Podunk airports.
Just one problem: Nine out of 10 passengers at the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International can't use the two jet bridges, which were bought with a $1.1 million federal grant.
Allegiant Air, the airport's dominant airline, won't use them. The low-cost carrier says it's faster moving passengers simultaneously through front and rear doors with ramps than funneling them through the front on a jet bridge.
"People enjoy getting off the plane faster, and we are able to turn the plane around that much quicker for a successful on-time departure," said Allegiant spokeswoman Tyri Squyres. The airline also doesn't want to risk jet bridges hitting a plane and damaging the front door, she said.
Not everyone's thrilled with Allegiant leaving the bridges idle.
Margaret Palank, 83, was annoyed that she had to walk down a ramp instead of riding her wheelchair down a jet bridge after arriving on Allegiant's flight from Allentown, Pa.
"I went slow, I was afraid of falling," she said.
Younger travelers appreciated the quick introduction to summertime in Florida. "I like to get out and feel the fresh air as soon as I can," said Brad Lilly of Allentown.
Airport officials called the bridges "the most important modification" in a $21 million renovation of the passenger terminal that began in January 2008 and is almost completed.
Airport director Noah Lagos said Allegiant executives told him before the project that they preferred not to change how they move passengers on and off their planes. Smaller carriers use the jet bridges. But they don't come close in size to Allegiant, which flies 91 percent of the airport's passengers. So far this year, other airlines used the jet bridges 132 times. Allegiant made 1,295 flights without them over the same period.
"Even if it's only a minority (of travelers) that use them, they provide a new level of convenience," Lagos said.
More importantly, he said, the airport couldn't attract new airlines without them, as carriers all say jet bridges are on their must-have lists.
Steve Huettel can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3384.