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Tampa International Airport's international flights take another hit

With the skyline of Cancun in the distance, diners enjoy a quiet moment at Casa O’s on Isla Mujeres in Mexico. Visitors fly into Cancun to get to the island. Direct flights from Tampa have been tried, but airlines haven’t found the right mix for nonstop.

Lara Cerri | Times (2009)

With the skyline of Cancun in the distance, diners enjoy a quiet moment at Casa O’s on Isla Mujeres in Mexico. Visitors fly into Cancun to get to the island. Direct flights from Tampa have been tried, but airlines haven’t found the right mix for nonstop.

Tampa International's next international flight is stumbling out of the gate.

And that can't be a good sign for the airport's efforts to bolster its scant number of nonstop routes outside the country.

On Feb. 19, Delta Air Lines starts seasonal service to Cancun, the Mexican beach resort that's ground zero for college spring-breakers. Delta's dipping a toe in the water to test the market. The airline will fly only on Saturdays. Its original spring schedule ran through April — 11 flights total.

But recently, Delta called customers booked to fly in April with bad news. Their direct flights were canceled and they'd need to fly to Cancun and back with a layover at the airline's Atlanta mega-hub.

The reason: Faced with weak demand for tickets, Delta pulled the plug on all five April flights. Delta is still scheduled to operate Saturday flights from June 11 to Aug. 13, said spokesman Trebor Banstetter.

To be fair, Tampa Bay wasn't the only place with new Cancun service that underperformed. Delta also cut short Texas spring schedules to Cancun from San Antonio and Austin. Columbus, Ohio, was unaffected.

But maybe TIA has the Curse of Cancun. No fewer than six airlines have tried to make a go of the route since the 1980s. Spirit Airlines had to postpone service in 2005 when Hurricane Wilma wrecked Cancun's hotels. Spirit later tried daily and Saturday-only flights but left after a few months.

JetBlue launched daily fights in December 2008 with 100-seat jets. Ticket sales plummeted and JetBlue canceled flights as Mexico's swine flu outbreak grabbed headlines worldwide.

Questions about Tampa Bay's ability to support international flights could return if the Delta flights flounder. But there's a more important test on the way.

Tampa International claims just three year-round international routes, the most important of which is British Airways to London through Gatwick airport. The airline now flies five days a week but upgrades to daily service March 27.

Local business travelers gripe they can't reach major European and Latin American cities without flying through Atlanta, Charlotte, Miami or New York.

With daily flights, British Airways gives busy business travelers the flexibility they need. One statistic to consider: about 85 percent of passengers on the BA fights are Brits coming here on vacation.

It's time for business fliers here to put up or shut up.

Steve Huettel can be reached at (727) 813-8128 or huettel@sptimes.com.

Tampa International Airport's international flights take another hit 01/21/11 [Last modified: Friday, January 21, 2011 9:35pm]
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