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TIA's new director ticks off priorities, like a gas station and convenience store

Joe Lopano, the new executive director, hustles through the terminal at Tampa International Airport after his first Hillsborough County Aviation Authority board meeting.

STEPHEN J. CODDINGTON | Times

Joe Lopano, the new executive director, hustles through the terminal at Tampa International Airport after his first Hillsborough County Aviation Authority board meeting.

They didn't call him "Hurricane Joe'' in Dallas for nothing.

Joe Lopano, Tampa International Airport's new executive director, showed bosses on the airport board Thursday that he has wasted no time in his first week on the job.

In opening remarks at his first board meeting Thursday, Lopano, 56, pledged to examine the justification for every new capital project at Tampa International.

Lopano will conduct a complete review of the airport's procurement procedures that the board requested after allegations of improprieties last year. He will also perform an evaluation of the senior staff and plans to appoint an "employee council'' tasked with finding ways to increase airport revenues.

Airport staff identified a place for one possible moneymaker: a gas station and convenience store just south of the cell phone parking lot. The location would be ideal for travelers returning rental cars. Many now complain they can't find anywhere to fill up near the airport.

The former marketing chief at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport emerged from a field of four finalists in September to replace Louis Miller, who after nearly 14 years as executive director abruptly resigned in February amid friction with airport board members.

Lopano inherits a board split over airport priorities.

New international airline flights top the agenda for two board members — Steven Burton and Dr. Joseph Diaco. Both chafed last year when Miller talked about how competition from bigger airports in Orlando and Miami limited Tampa's chances for more service.

But board chairman Al Austin and Mayor Pam Iorio in September identified declining passenger traffic — and the drop in airport revenues that result — as TIA's biggest concern. Giving airlines financial incentives for new flights would be a mistake until travel picks up, Austin said. "We have a disagreement over this,'' he said. Airport traffic edged up in the last two months.

Lopano made clear Thursday he's in a hurry to tackle the challenge.

He brought the board contracts with two consultants to evaluate potential domestic and international routes and one for a third consultant to analyze the economic impact of new air service. The contracts approved Thursday could be worth as much as $1.1 million over five years.

"It's the first basic building block to get going," he said.

Pulling together contracts from scratch can take as long as six months. In late October, Lopano learned the airport's only air service development contract would expire in a month. Though he had been picked for TIA's top job just a few weeks earlier, Lopano told staffers to step on the gas and get new contracts ready for board approval this month. The advertisements, company proposals, staff reviews and legal work were finished in six weeks.

"He's very high energy,'' says Trudy Carson, the airport's director of air service development. "You just ask which way he wants you to jump.''

Lopano isn't waiting for any consultant studies. He's driving to Orlando later this month for meetings with executives at AirTran Airways headquarters. AirTran expects to complete its merger with Southwest Airlines, TIA's biggest airline, by the middle of this year.

In a brief conversation with reporters, Lopano hinted at other ideas he's entertaining.

New advertising in the terminal could help boost revenue, "but there has to be a fine balance between art and commercial areas,'' he said. And he's interested in exploring whether to ask the Transportation Security Administration to replace its checkpoint screening personnel with a private contractor. "That's something I'll dig into beginning next week,'' he said. A final decision would be up to the airport board.

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com.

TIA's new director ticks off priorities, like a gas station and convenience store 01/06/11 [Last modified: Thursday, January 6, 2011 10:16pm]
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