TAMPA — Weeks after the Deepwater Horizon explosion sent millions of barrels of oil flowing into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, BP set up a $20 billion fund to compensate anyone harmed by the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.
But Tampa International Airport is still waiting for BP to act on its $1.7 million claim for damages. So the airport's governing board voted unanimously Friday to hire outside legal counsel to get its money from the British energy giant.
"Because of the oil spill scare, we had less customers coming through the airport on their way to the beaches," said Tampa International CEO Joe Lopano. "That was a big part of our revenue stream."
The Deepwater Horizon explosion took place on April 20, 2010. Between May 1 and Aug. 31 of that year, according to the airport, it lost 2.6 percent of its "leisure" passengers.
That's a loss of 204,247 passengers who would have bought food, rented cars, paid airport fees and spent money at Tampa International, officials said.
The airport attributes that drop in passengers to news about the oil spill.
"It's lost leisure traffic that was the result of people canceling or avoiding summer travel to this area," said airport spokeswoman Janet Zink. "Even though there wasn't any oil washing up on the beaches, people in Minnesota didn't know that."
The airport filed its claim in August 2011 but hasn't heard anything from BP. So on Friday morning, the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority board voted to hire three law firms that have experience pursuing Deepwater Horizon-related legal claims: Nix, Patterson & Roach of Dallas; Harrison, Rivard, Duncan, & Buzzett of Panama City; and statewide powerhouse Fowler White Boggs in Tampa.
"They have a very aggressive claims process and a great relationship with the claims administrator," airport attorney Gigi Rechel told the board.
Lopano also revealed that the airport's financials are poised to make a comeback this budget year. According to Lopano, the airport is projected to rake in $178 million in operating revenue in fiscal year 2012, an increase of 4.2 percent, or $7.2 million.
The airport is also planning to add 13 people to the staff. The airport has let 63 people go since 2009 and now has 573 employees. The airport also lost 14 percent of its passengers and $22 million in operating revenue from 2007 to 2010.
Lopano blamed those circumstances on what he called the "triple perfect storm": the recession, the collapse of the real estate market and the oil spill. But the airport is rebounding, he said. Next year, Tampa International is projected to increase its number of passengers by 2.9 percent.
Jamal Thalji can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3404.