There's a new way of looking at things at Tampa International Airport — visually and mentally.
The airport is in the midst of a $7 million project to install new digital signs. High-definition flat-screen TVs, video walls and other displays will broadcast a constantly updated stream of data to travelers: arrival and departure times, weather forecasts, anything that could affect their flights.
Call it peace of mind through technology. Airport CEO Joe Lopano believes better-informed passengers are less stressed-out passengers. More data, he thinks, can help smooth the increasingly rough edges of air travel.
And more relaxed passengers, he hopes, are bigger spending passengers.
"Most people have a certain amount of control in their lives," Lopano said. "But when they travel, they have very little control. It's all in the hands of the airline and the airport. Is the line long? Is the traffic bad? There are a lot of uncontrollable factors.
"So when you're at the airport and you can see what time the flight is going to arrive, you can go relax, have a drink or something to eat.
"It just makes the customer feel much more at ease."
For those so at ease, Lopano has expanded the airport's dining and shopping options in the main terminal and airsides, boosting the airport's revenue per customer.
For too long, the airport was filled with outdated and mismatched signs. AirTran's old gate signs had to be changed manually. The gates for Delta and other airlines had small LED signs that displayed the city and flight number in red lights
"Everybody had a little different flavor of the cheesy LED-type sign," said Doug Wycoff, the airport's manager of innovation and infrastructure support.
Before Lopano took the Tampa job, when he was a jet-setting executive at Dallas-Fort Worth, he said TIA had a reputation for technological advances — it was one of the first airports to offer free Wi-Fi — but lagged considerably in other areas. And whenever he passed through here on a business trip, he definitely noticed all those decades-old, scrolling LED signs.
The first new digital signs predate Lopano. New flat-screens started going up in the gate areas in July 2010. But when Lopano took over in January 2011, the pace of change accelerated.
"One of the first things I did was get with IT and say, 'What are we going to do to turn this airport around?' " Lopano said. "I think they were energized. I told them you have all the authority you need, just go out and do whatever the customer needs."
In July 2012, new video walls went up in the baggage claim areas.
The challenge for the airport was getting the new technology to communicate with the airlines. In the old days — pre-2010 — the old signs had to be updated manually. But now when the airlines change their flight times, the gate signs automatically change too. The IT staff monitors the information on each sign display in the airport's network operations center.
Not only are the signs new but so is the information they display. In May the airport started displaying FlightView's Flight-In-Sight! system. Displayed at each gate, it lets people see the exact location of arriving planes, as well as its speed, altitude, remaining distance and the weather along its flight path.
Smartphone apps can provide that same information. But TIA wants that information to be just a glance away — and less savvy passengers won't feel the need to pepper gate agents with questions anymore. Agents won't have to keep everyone penned in at the gates, either.
"It's peace of mind," Wycoff said. "Typically when you're at the gate you don't want to give up your seat. You get everyone asking: 'Where's the plane? How long until it gets here?' "
Said Lopano: "Research tells us the more information you provide, the better the experience is."
Soon the airport will be awash in information. New video walls in baggage claim will display the weather and local events. Signs will also signal when the first and last bags from each flight hit the conveyor belts.
By December, the airport plans to erect big LED signs in the shuttle lobby of the main terminal, where passengers board the trams. Each sign will be 18-feet wide and 5 1/2-feet tall, which Wycoff called an "LED canvas of information." By the end of the year, similar signs — they'll measure 31 feet by 6 1/2 feet — are set to be installed by the escalators.
As the new signs go up, the terminal itself is being upgraded. A $20 million renovation has been ongoing since March 2012. There's new decor, furniture and technology-friendly furniture: counters with stools and comfortable chairs that have built-in electrical outlets and USB ports to help travelers recharge their devices.
Even the Wi-Fi is improved. There are dozens more access points providing much faster service.
"We're all about providing customer service in whatever space or form that might take us," Lopano said. "That means providing good restaurant and retail options. But it's also about giving the tech-savvy customers things they want."
Jamal Thalji can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3404.