TAMPA — Tampa International Airport has landed nonstop service to San Francisco, finally connecting Tampa Bay entrepreneurs to the tech capital of the world in Silicon Valley.
The daily nonstop flight on United Airlines will start Feb. 16.
Airport officials say the route is one of the most in-demand in the country and has been the airport's top domestic priority for some time. Nearly 200 people pass through Tampa's terminals daily en route to San Francisco, according to data collected by the airport. The new route is expected to boost business and tourist travel to Tampa Bay, and local tourism officials are exploring new avenues to market Tampa Bay's beaches and attractions to West Coast travelers.
The direct line to Silicon Valley also will give Tampa area entrepreneurs better access to investors, companies and other connections.
"One of the biggest reasons investors and companies don't want to look at this market is because of the travel issues," said RJ Garbowicz, who runs a tech company out of his St. Petersburg home but travels to San Francisco several times a year to meet with his development team and lawyers. "It's too expensive and takes too long to get here. So this flight is going to be huge for Tampa Bay."
A nonstop flight will take close to six hours from Tampa to San Francisco and five hours the other way. With connecting flights and layovers, travelers going from Tampa to San Francisco currently can spend 10 hours or more traveling.
The flights currently cost, on average, between $500 and $800 for an economy seat. They could start as low as about $300 when the nonstop United flights are offered.
"We saw significant growth of traffic in between the two cities. And United is in a growth mode, so this flight made sense," said Jim Ferea, United Airlines managing director of domestic planning. "Tampa is fast becoming a center for technology and we wanted to connect the city with the largest city for technology."
The announcement of the San Francisco flight comes months after airport officials launched a social media campaign that encouraged residents to tweet and share personal stories in a Facebook group with more than 1,400 people using the hashtag #TPA2SF.
The marketing team at the Tampa airport put together a business pitch and have been trying to woo air carriers for years. While data showed that there was high demand for a nonstop flight to San Francisco, airport CEO Joe Lopano said the personal stories shared on social media "added the texture" they needed to ink a deal. A new marketing logo for the service shows the skylines of both cities under the headline "Bay to Bay." The Sunshine Skyway and Golden Gate Bridge mirror one another, as do the city of Tampa's trolley cars and one from San Francisco.
"Our marketing team came up with a compelling business pitch that showed there was a lot of opportunity in Tampa," Lopano said. "No matter where I went, people would tell me we needed this flight. And now we have it."
Lopano has been actively working to land direct service to San Francisco since he was hired as the airport's chief executive in 2011. San Francisco comes after Lopano and his team inked direct service on Alaska Airlines from Seattle. He also lured the airport's first nonstop flight to continental Europe in 15 years when Edelweiss Air started offering service to Zurich, Switzerland, in 2012. Other new international routes came shortly after to destinations like Panama City on Copa Airlines and to Frankfurt, Germany, on Lufthansa.
Garbowicz, who is the founder of Webtalk.co, an online networking platform, said he has driven to Orlando before to take the nonstop flight to San Francisco offered there.
"The nonstop flight cuts the travel time in half at least," he said. "To get there it requires significant planning and makes any trip more expensive because you have to tack on a day at the beginning and at the end of your trip."
Ron Favali, who lives in Palm Harbor and works in marketing, also travels to San Francisco for conferences and meetings several times a year.
"The best way to describe it is as an all-day adventure in traveling," Favali said. "A nonstop flight greatly reduces the amount of time you spend to get there. Hopefully this flight will eliminate those barriers for the growing tech community in Tampa Bay, too. This is great for me, but even better for our community."
Brent Britton is the managing partner for de la Peña & Holiday LLP in South Tampa, though the law firm is headquartered in San Francisco. Britton said he travels there as often as once a month for meetings with tech clients and partners.
"I'm a lawyer. I bill by the hour so every minute counts," Britton said.
He has flown directly to Los Angeles from Tampa and booked a shuttle to get to San Francisco in the past. Connections make the trip longer and could cause delays depending on the time of year and the weather, he said.
"We have a great airport in Tampa. I want to fly out of here, so this new flight is going to be great," Britton said. "I'll fly United as a default from now on because it's meaningful to me that they would invest in this flight and our community."
The San Francisco flight will be on a Boeing 737-800 aircraft that seats more than 150. The flight leaves San Francisco daily at 8:30 a.m. It will depart Tampa the same day at 5:50 p.m. Prices vary, but start around $311 for an economy seat.
Contact Justine Griffin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.