TAMPA — Tampa International Airport plans to spend $27.6 million to expand its oldest airside terminal to accommodate increased international flights and eliminate bottlenecks at security gates and baggage claim areas.
Nearly all of TIA's international flights arrive and depart from Airside F, which was built in 1987. The expansion would allow the airport to handle three wide-body international flights, such as 767s, simultaneously, said airport CEO Joe Lopano, who has made expanded international travel a top priority since he was hired a year ago.
Lopano recently landed TIA's first new flights to Europe in 15 years. In May, Edelweiss begins flying between Tampa and Zurich, Switzerland, twice weekly.
The airport already has nonstop flights to Canada and London and four flights a week to Cuba — and is hungry for more.
By fall, the Edelweiss and British Airways flights will arrive within an hour of each other at Airside F — which also handles domestic carriers such as American Airlines and US Airways, along with Cayman Airways, SkyKing and WestJet.
The renovations, subject to approval by the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority board, would expand the international baggage claim area at Airside F and the security area upstairs.
The airside was built long before the heightened security requirements imposed since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The result is a frequent bottleneck at the shuttle to take passengers to and from the landside terminal.
At peak times, arriving passengers must work their way past a long line of departing passengers awaiting security clearance that snakes all the way to the shuttle entrance. It's a confusing, chaotic situation that can stress out passengers worried about missing flights — people such as Bob Simon of Hartford, Conn.
Simon arrived Thursday morning an hour early for his flight, but a problem with his bag at check-in delayed him 20 minutes. When he stepped off the shuttle at Airside F, "I lost a heartbeat,'' he said.
A horde of weary passengers snaked past him to the end of the shuttle. And that was just the first line. Once he got through that, he would be directed to yet another line before clearing security and boarding his plane. With only 20 minutes before departure, he asked a TIA official what to do. She escorted him to the front of the line.
But he might have made it without the help. Don Shackell and his wife, Deb, were in the same line, waiting to fly home to Toronto, and were concerned when they saw the crowd. "We thought we might be long through this, but it's moving quickly,'' she said.
Still, it's not the TIA way. The airport has earned an international reputation for its ease of use. Lopano wants to make sure international travelers get the same experience.
He knows he has work to do. Most international passengers arriving at TIA must handle their luggage at two different baggage claim belts — one at the airside terminal to get through customs and a second at the main landside terminal. They also must jostle past airline and concession employees through a narrow hallway before making their way up an escalator or aboard a cramped elevator.
The nearly $28 million project is intended to solve all those problems.
Two baggage claim carousels and two passport booths would be added to the international arrival area. That would add room to accommodate up to 900 passengers arriving at the same time. It also would allow international passengers to handle their bags just once, just as domestic passengers do. Security clearance on the main level would be expanded so lines would move more quickly and not run all the way to the shuttles. To do that, concession areas will be moved to expand the security area.
The expansion also would position the airport for future growth in international flights. "An airport should always have capacity in reserve,'' Lopano said Thursday. You need to be ready whenever new business opportunities come along "and we are continuing to aggressively market, especially to Europe,'' he said. European flights tend to arrive and depart about the same time: late afternoon or early evening.
The airport once had bigger plans: Move all international flights to a new $1 billion North Terminal by 2015. But those plans were shelved until at least 2023 because the economic downturn has decreased passenger counts over the past four years.
The aviation authority board will consider the renovation plan on Thursday. If approved, design would begin in March and construction of the first phase could be finished by year's end, with the airside operating throughout the renovation. The project would be finished by September 2013. It would be paid for with revenue from passenger facility charges, state transit grants and a $3 million loan.