Top executives at Tampa International Airport traveling on business may soon get a perk that colleagues at other major Florida airports can only dream about: a pricey seat at the front of the plane.
TIA chief executive Joe Lopano wants to loosen Hillsborough County Aviation Authority travel rules for himself, his bosses on the agency's governing board and a half-dozen vice presidents.
Policy now requires that employees travel on the cheapest coach fare. The only exception is when they're flying outside North America and conduct business within a day of arriving. Then, they can ride in business class.
Lopano has proposed allowing board members and senior staffers to fly business class on any flight longer than two hours. That would open up the front cabin for trips to New York, Chicago, Dallas and most other domestic destinations.
Business-class tickets can cost three times as much as coach, sometimes more. Lopano said the new policy will result in 10 business class flights by staffers at a cost of $10,000 a year. He's counting on those trips to drum up new airline flights and help raise $5 million in new revenue budgeted for next year.
"I want my people to be more productive at all times," Lopano said. "I want them with their laptops open."
Nonsense, says Robert Price of Sun City Center in south Hillsborough County. As an executive with the U.S. Energy Department, he regularly flew coach to Europe and Asia. Federal rules kept him in a cramped coach seat for flights less than 14 hours. He still managed to prepare for meetings.
"It's not easy since they made the seats smaller and smaller," Price said. "It may not be comfortable, but you can do it. I think this two-hour (policy) is a joke."
None of Florida's seven largest airports lets employees ride in business class on domestic flights. Only Tampa International and Orlando International allow any air travel outside coach class, and that's only on long international flights.
The rest require that employees fly on the cheapest coach ticket available. Same for local governments: Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, the city of Tampa and Tampa Port Authority.
The Aviation Authority's operating budget comes from fees paid by airlines, rent from tenants and charges for people who park in airport garages.
The airport's proposal may include first-class travel. Network airlines — such as Delta, American and United — don't offer a separate section of the plane for domestic business-class customers from Tampa and many other cities. They call the front section first/business or just first class.
"Now, it's just cabin up front and cabin in back," said Markus Mittermayr, president of St. Petersburg Travel Center. The new policy would allow the "equivalent" of business class if there's no actual business class available.
The five members of the Aviation Authority board are schedule to vote on the proposal Sept. 1. Joseph Diaco and Steven Burton endorsed it last week.
"It's a night-and-day difference between coach and business class," said Diaco. "Our old policy is outdated."
Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist, who also sits on the Aviation Authority board, wanted to hear Lopano's rationale before deciding but said he's wary about new spending that people might see as wasteful. "My radar is up on this," Crist said.