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Tampa International Airport lands nonstop flight to Seattle

TAMPA — In recent years Tampa International Airport has broadened its reach overseas to the nations of Cuba, continental Europe and Latin America.

Now the airport is connecting to a new world in this country: the Pacific Northwest.

Tampa International announced Tuesday a daily nonstop route to Seattle that will start June 20. The Alaska Airlines flight to and from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport will be Tampa Bay's first direct flight to the Pacific Northwest.

"The west coast has been a hole in our route map, and now we've closed that," said Tampa International CEO Joe Lopano. "For us to attract the kind of high-tech companies we want to attract, we have to be competitive.

"We have to have the air service to bring them here."

Introductory fares for the new Tampa-to-Seattle route will start at $149 one-way, according to the airline. Those tickets must be purchased by Feb. 26 and have to be used by Nov. 10.

The flights are scheduled to depart Seattle every day at 8:50 a.m. Pacific time and arrive in Tampa at 5:30 p.m. Eastern time. The Tampa departure time will be 6:30 p.m. Eastern time and will arrive in Seattle at 9:25 p.m. Pacific time. Alaska Airlines will service the route using 737-800s that seat around 160 people.

The Seattle-Tampa route is the No. 3 unserved airline market in the United States, according to the airport. About 160 passengers make the trip each day between Tampa and Seattle, but starting June 20 they won't need a stopover anymore.

The top unserved route is San Francisco-Tampa, with about 180 people making the trek daily between the two cities. Tampa International officials said they're still working on that route and another coveted domestic destination: Salt Lake City. (The nation's No. 2 unserved route is close by: Orlando-Portland.)

The new Seattle route opens up travel options between Tampa Bay and the Pacific Northwest, the way Copa Airlines' new Panama City route has put the bay within one connecting flight to the nations of Central and South America.

The Seattle route will give travelers another, perhaps easier, way to get to places like Portland, Ore.; Anchorage, Alaska; and the western Canadian cities of Vancouver and Calgary.

"I can tell you that one of the things that holds people back from going, period, is that lengthy flight with that connection," said Julio Soto, director of product development for the Auto Club Group, also known as AAA. "If you do that, you might as well fly to Paris."

But the biggest jump in Tampa Bay travel could be aimed at Alaska, Soto said. He said 7,000 AAA members in Florida, Georgia and Tennessee — but mostly from Florida — booked Alaskan cruises last year. He said that number could double by September.

Seattle has become a big magnet for Alaskan cruises, Soto said, because it's a cheaper option for Americans than traveling to Vancouver.

"Obviously the big draw here will be opening up Alaska to this area," Soto said. "It's a really, really popular destination and people come back from there just overwhelmed by the scenery, by how beautiful and pristine it is."

Economic development leaders see the new route as a way to create tech-oriented opportunities.

The Seattle area is home to Fortune 500 companies like Amazon, which plans to build a warehouse in southeastern Hills­borough County, and Microsoft, which is based near Seattle in Redmond, Wash., and has an operation in Tampa.

Alaska Airlines was attracted by the strength of the Seattle-Tampa travel market, airport officials said, and buoyed by last year's U.S. Conference of Mayors report that the Tampa Bay area is the fastest growing metro area in Florida.

But during an October meeting with the airline in Seattle, the airline wanted to know one more thing.

"They said it looks right on paper," said Chris Minner, the airport's vice president of marketing. "Then they said, 'Convince me you're going to make this work.' That's when D.T. Minich came in and said 'How about this?' And it blew their socks off."

Minich, CEO of the Pinellas County tourism agency Visit St. Pete-Clearwater, showed the airline their winter campaign ads for New York and Chicago redesigned to sell the beaches to Seattle. "Sunshine is the new caffeine," read one ad.

Visit St. Pete-Clearwater also pledged to spend $200,000 over the next two years marketing in Seattle. Hillsborough County's tourism arm, Visit Tampa Bay, said it will spend $50,000 over two years marketing the urban and cultural experience of Tampa to tourist and convention bookers in Seattle.

Seattle residents traditionally travel to the beaches of Hawaii and Mexico, Minich said. But safety concerns about traveling in Mexico, he said, could create an opportunity for Pinellas beaches.

"I think we as a community have never really marketed to the Pacific Northwest," Minich said. "It means new dollars for Tampa Bay."

The airport committed to $437,000 in incentives for Alaska Airlines — in waived fees along with $250,000 for marketing — to get the airline to sign a one-year contract to serve Tampa International.

It was another first for Lopano and his team, who since taking over the airport in 2011 have used analytics, airline incentives and an area coalition of marketing partners to achieve a series of firsts: the first Havana-to-Tampa flight in half a century; Tampa's first nonstop to continental Europe in 15 years; and the Tampa-to-Panama City route, the bay area's first nonstop to a major Latin American hub.

"We don't stop, we're not going to stop," Lopano said, "and there's no reason to stop."

Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3404. Follow him on Twitter @jthalji.

Tampa International Airport lands nonstop flight to Seattle 02/11/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 11, 2014 10:56pm]
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