A shrinking airline business will push back construction of a $950-million terminal complex at Tampa International Airport at least three years, airport officials said Thursday.
Plans originally called for opening the first phase of the project by October 2015, when airport officials estimated that passenger traffic would become too much for the original complex to handle.
But the number of air travelers nationally and at Tampa International has plummeted as airlines slash capacity and consumers worry about the shaky economy, said Louis Miller, the local airport's executive director.
He says Tampa International's passenger traffic could drop 10 percent in the fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, from a year earlier. Long-term growth will likely average 2 percent annually, down from earlier projections of 3.2 percent.
That means the new complex won't be needed before 2018 and maybe even later, Miller said.
"My best guess is it will open by 2020," he said.
The airport has awarded about $100-million in contracts for preliminary work. That includes a new air cargo building and 1.3-mile access road, a conceptual design for the new terminal, drainage and taxiways on the site north of the current terminal.
But the airport's governing board can wait to launch the bulk of construction until 30 months before the new complex is needed — when Tampa International handles 12.5-million departing passengers annually, Miller said. The figure is now 9.35-million.
Passenger traffic declined slightly for most of 2008. But losses accelerated in August (9.3 percent) and in September (12.3 percent) from a year earlier. Airline capacity, measured by the number of aircraft seats flown from an airport, will be down 10 percent in November and January and 6 percent in December.
Airlines increased fares with fewer seats to sell and aren't likely to change that strategy soon, said John Wheat, Tampa International's deputy executive director.
"To make money, they need to keep capacity out of the market," he said.
More than 70 percent of Tampa International's revenue comes from passengers through parking fees, car rentals and sales at airport restaurants and shops. Miller imposed a hiring freeze and other cost-saving measures this year to make up the operating shortfall.
He assured airport board members Thursday that even a prolonged decline in passengers won't endanger Tampa International's finances.
"Our business model works," said Miller. "We're not going to face bankruptcy. We're not going to default on debt."
Steve Huettel can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3384.