Looking for a sign of change at Tampa International Airport under its new management?
Interim executive director John Wheat says the airport will join the game of paying airlines to fly new routes, especially ones that would beef up the airport's thin roster of international destinations.
Former airport boss Louis Miller detested airline incentives. If TIA paid one carrier, he reasoned, why wouldn't every competitor already here demand a handout? And if the new flight didn't fill up, the airline would take its plane elsewhere once the deal ran out.
The more he dug in his heels, the more it fueled calls from critics — fair or not — that the airport wasn't aggressively recruiting international carriers. That perception and subsequent clashes with bosses on the airport's board preceded his resignation in February.
Miller's longtime deputy at Tampa International and earlier in Salt Lake City, Wheat wants to come out on top when the board picks a full-time executive director after a national search. He's telling people incentives can work, provided the business community pitches in.
Airlines increasingly demand that communities pay to play. Most have cut the size of their fleets or remain in no-growth mode. When airports come calling, airline route planners ask why they should take a risk on a new market.
Incentives take a variety of forms: advertising to promote new flights, waivers of airport fees, guarantees that a certain number of seats will be sold.
Subsidies can easily run into millions of dollars a year. Whoever's paying the bill — a tourism agency, a chamber of commerce or private business — takes the chance customers won't buy enough tickets to keep the route from becoming a money pit.
Pennsylvania taxpayers and an economic development agency could cough up $5 million this year to support a daily Delta Air Lines flight between Pittsburgh and Paris. Just two-thirds of the seats were filled since the route began last July.
Delta told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review the subsidy deal would end in June 2011 unless the numbers perk up. "To ensure it can be sustained over time,'' said spokesman Kent Landers, "it is critical that the Pittsburgh community actively supports the route during the second year.''
In Portland, Ore., the agency that runs the airport last fall agreed to pay Delta $3.5 million to keep flying its nonstop to Tokyo through May. The city had lost a Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt and leaders worried international flights from the one-time Asian gateway for Delta would dwindle to a few Canadian destinations.
There are success stories. Six years ago, Sarasota-Bradenton International had no discount carriers and was losing 1 million passengers a year to Tampa. Officials used a $1.5 million federal grant to attract AirTran Airways, said aviation consultant Michael Boyd, who helped arrange the deal.
Traffic soared. AirTran now flies to Atlanta and Baltimore year-round, Boston and Indianapolis in the winter and spring.
Tampa International already has plenty of domestic flights, says Boyd. For a good blueprint to land international carriers, he says, look to Orlando International.
Orlando landed a coveted Lufthansa nonstop to Frankfurt in 2007. The key reason: global powerhouse Siemens agreed to buy blocks of seats for employees who regularly flew between its headquarters in Germany and Orlando-based operations.
"You don't have that in Tampa,'' says Boyd.
Airport officials must first decide which destinations to target for incentives, Wheat told members of the airport's marketing committee Thursday. The Tampa Bay Partnership will send members a short survey asking where they fly that doesn't have nonstop service from Tampa. San Francisco or San Jose? Seattle or Sao Paulo?
"We need to have a discussion about what's most important to us,'' said Wheat.
TIA's competitors are already playing the game.
Steve Huettel can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3384.