TAMPA — Tom and Pamela Montefinese fly to Europe every year, and each year they have to stop for an hours-long layover in New York.
They flew on Edelweiss Air's first flight from Tampa to Zurich on Friday night, Tampa's first new nonstop service to Europe in 15 years. They estimate that flying nonstop to Zurich before catching a connecting flight cut at least four hours from their travel time.
"We didn't know when we booked it that it would be the maiden voyage, though," Tom Montefinese said, shouting over the sound of a Swiss band playing at the gate.
Tampa International Airport pulled out all the stops to welcome Edelweiss Air, the Zurich-based airline that will be making the flights every Tuesday and Friday.
Live flamingos, steel drummers and flutes of chilled champagne awaited the 280 incoming passengers at the main terminal. A Swiss-themed party — complete with an assortment of Swiss cheeses and chocolates — was held for the 180 outgoing passengers at the gate. The plane holds about 300 people.
"Tampa, we are here," said Karl Kistler, CEO of Edelweiss Air and pilot of the nine-hour flight.
Airport CEO Joe Lopano called the new service a "turning point" for Tampa Bay. Instead of driving to Orlando International Airport to fly to Europe, he said passengers from the bay area now have a direct route to Switzerland — with connections to 40 other cities across Europe — in their hometown airport.
And instead of competing to capture tourism dollars, tourism and economic development agencies from both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties chipped in to help promote the flight here and in Switzerland and Germany.
Collectively, the agencies put forward more than $800,000 for advertising and marketing.
"We can only win in this community if we work as a team," Lopano said. "The airport cannot do this by ourselves."
Officials at Tampa International have been working to boost the airport's anemic number of international flights. Including the Edelweiss flights, Tampa International boasts just 34 international flights a week. Orlando International and Orlando Sanford International, the airport's closest neighbors of comparable size, combined offer more than 200.
This makes the flight to Zurich all the more sweet to Tampa.
The flights are estimated to bring in about $32 million in annual economic benefit and create about 265 jobs in Tampa Bay.
"This is an important first step," Lopano said. "It's just the beginning."