Paul Wood surely ranks with the biggest fans of Tampa International Airport.
The Ohio transplant raves over parking above the main terminal, a short elevator ride from ticket counters and bag claim. Wood, 51, can go on and on about the clear directional signs and new, longer luggage carousels.
Two or three times a month, Wood drives to TIA from his south Hillsborough County home to pick up a friend or a friend's relative. Most are elderly; half use a wheelchair or need assistance.
Last week, he was shocked when Tampa International's boss proposed ending first-hour-free parking in garages closest to the main terminal. Interim director John Wheat said the perk, introduced in 2005 to relieve traffic jams at the curbs outside bag claim, wasn't necessary anymore.
Passenger traffic is down and drivers now can wait in a free cell phone lot. Also, there's a lot of money at stake. Charging $1 for each 20 minutes or $3 an hour would generate $2.2 million a year during lean times.
But critics of the change don't talk so much about money. Like Wood, most are profoundly proud of Tampa International's reputation for customer service.
They warn that eliminating what Saint Leo University business professor Adam Shoemaker calls "the magical First Free Hour" could send the wrong message.
"When friends come to visit, they can't believe that an airport would actually do something that both saves the consumer money and just plain makes sense," he wrote to the airport. "It makes visiting TIA akin to a joy, rather than a drudgery, as most of us have experienced at other, lesser airports."
That's a big reason Tampa International consistently ranks in the top three mid-sized U.S. airports. What other world-class institutions can we claim? Moffitt Cancer Center? Pinellas beaches? Bern's Steakhouse?
Financial consultant Scott Bush of Oldsmar says in his days as a frequent flier, his girlfriend would gladly pick him up at Tampa International. It's so convenient and blessedly free of big-city airport chaos. "If you take away a reason for people to go there, you become a little less world-class," he said.
Airport officials estimate 500 to 700 cars a day would move out of the garages and onto the curbs to pick up travelers if they end free parking. Fewer folks waiting inside wouldn't seem to be good for airport restaurant and shops.
But retailers report most of their business comes from travelers, not meeters and greeters staying less than an hour, Wheat says.
Free parking might not be on the chopping block if airport revenues hadn't dropped the past two years, he said. Wheat is confident curbside congestion won't return if board members decide next month to end free parking effective Oct. 1.
Lou Delmonico of Treasure Island agreed. Visitors could simply use the cell phone lot if they don't want to pay. "It's a trend of the times," said Delmonico, picking up his in-laws at the Airside A shuttle stop. "They're just falling in line with other major airports."
Steve Huettel can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3384.