Passenger drop may push new Tampa International Airport terminal beyond 2022

Picture for moment what a new Tampa International Airport might look like.

Recharging stations for electric cars in long-term parking? Self-service kiosks replacing all the ticket counters where real people checked your bag? Security scanners that check for weapons as you and your bag breeze through the checkpoint?

Not long ago, airport planners were ready to jump into questions like these facing a real deadline: 2015. That's when forecasts predicted that Tampa International Airport would need a new terminal to help handle the 12.5 million people getting on airliners, called enplaned passengers.

But declining travel caused by the recession and the shaky condition of commercial airlines have knocked back the time line. Big time.

Passenger traffic in 2015 will just be returning to the 2007 peak of 9.6 million, an airport consultant forecast in a spring report. Now, the airport's best guess is the magic 12.5 million number won't happen before 2022, or 13 years from now.

Here's why: Airlines had a rocky ride throughout the decade. Travel tanked after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Carriers large and small went through bankruptcies because of bad decisions and bad luck. SARS and swine flu took a toll.

Tampa International came though the bumps and enjoyed a couple of strong years. But then the economy weakened and oil prices peaked in summer 2008.

Airlines cut flights and switched to smaller planes. Their reductions focused on domestic flying, especially in low-fare markets like Florida. That turned out to be a good call.

As the recession took hold last fall, passenger traffic — particularly among business travelers — plunged faster than the airlines could cut capacity. For the year ending Sept. 30, Tampa International suffered its biggest decline this decade, dropping nearly 800,000 enplaned passengers, or 8.5 percent, from a year earlier.

It will be a long way back. Airport officials predict 2 percent growth for next year, returning to more robust levels as the economy rebounds.

An often-quoted airline consultant doesn't hold out as much hope for the entire country. Michael Boyd of the Boyd Group in Evergreen, Colo., expects continued declining passenger traffic for U.S. airlines next year and a slow recovery starting in 2011.

"The economy is still going down, unemployment is still going up and folks are more reticent to take that trip to Florida when Daddy might lose his job,'' Boyd told the USA Today.

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

Passenger drop may push new Tampa International Airport terminal beyond 2022 10/20/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 20, 2009 10:08pm]

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