Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers handles fewer than half as many passengers as Tampa International, yet has the same number of nonstop flights to Europe.
TIA's new boss, Joe Lopano, hopes to reverse his airport's long-standing failure to improve international service by taking a page from the playbook of his neighbor to the south.
As it turns out, the Fort Myers Metro area is home to more than 93,000 Germans and people of German ancestry. That's why Air Berlin, Germany's second-biggest airline, offers direct flights to its hub in Dusseldorf.
Does that explain why Lopano now wants to know how many Europeans own property in Tampa Bay?
"Exactly,'' he says.
Lopano spent much of his career selling airlines on the idea of flying very expensive planes to Dallas-Fort Worth International, the nation's fourth-largest airport. He helped steer new nonstop flights from such international destinations as Paris, Tokyo and Amsterdam to DFW.
His blueprint for duplicating that success goes like this: Do your homework. Think like an airline. Remember every airport with a long runway is your competitor.
"You're asking the airline to bring a $200 million airplane and spend $150,000 to fly it (each way)," Lopano said. "That's a major commitment."
He should have plenty of targets. You can count TIA's nonstop destinations outside the continental U.S. and Canada on one hand: London, Cancun, the Cayman Islands and San Juan.
Three consultants are assembling data to help narrow the search. Next month, Oliver Wyman Inc. will identify potential destinations and airlines that might fly them.
Europe seems the obvious place to start looking. Hundreds of thousands of tourists from Europe flock to Florida's West Coast each year. Airlines know the published air traffic statistics, "but not what's driving that," Lopano said.
He's seeking a comprehensive list of local companies with branch offices in Germany and records on how many Europeans own property in the four-county Tampa Bay area.
Airport marketers need to build a case that the new flight will be profitable over time and find an airline that's ordering new planes or unhappy with an underperforming destination. They start selling the plan to airline route planners, then hope it bubbles up to the executive suite.
"Once they get engaged looking at your numbers, then you're in the hunt," Lopano said. "But everybody's a competitor. An aircraft can fly 5,000 miles — from Europe to Asia or Europe to Africa, as well as the U.S."
Tampa International faces tough competition. Orlando International hosts nonstop flights to 11 markets in the Caribbean, Central and South America, plus London, Dublin and Paris.
For years, many Puerto Ricans in Tampa Bay drove to Orlando to fly home or pick up visiting relatives.
American Airlines has just one daily flight to San Juan from TIA, with fares much higher than AirTran Airways, JetBlue and Spirit charge from Orlando International, said Jolie Gonzalez of the Tampa Latin Chamber. Plus, they offer more schedule options.
"Flights in Orlando are half the price or even less," she said. "Last time, my dad paid just $151.75 on AirTran or JetBlue."
That will change next month. In September, TIA signed up both AirTran and JetBlue to fly nonstop to San Juan. AirTran will start with one daily flight April 5 and add another in May. JetBlue launches with one flight in May and adds a second in June. American stops flying the route April 1.
Orlando looms as major competition for a much bigger prize.
Southwest Airlines wants to fly outside the continental U.S. for the first time in its 40-year history. The huge discount carrier's pending takeover of AirTran, which flies to a handful of Caribbean destinations, could speed up those plans.
Southwest and AirTran can't talk about operating as a single airline until the deal closes by June at the latest. But a Caribbean expansion would require an airport hub, with Florida as the most logical location.
Orlando officials are pressing Southwest, the largest airline at the airport. The state and the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority gave AirTran $4.7 million toward a new operations center that opened last summer, plus $700,000 in tax incentives.
Southwest CEO Gary Kelly was noncommittal about an international hub during a visit to Orlando last month,
Southwest holds the largest share of passengers at TIA — 32 percent now and nearly 40 percent after the merger is complete. Lopano visited Southwest headquarters last month and said the international hub is a big deal for the airport.
"It's definitely on our radar screen," he said. "Southwest is very, very important, and we are very engaged with them."
Steve Huettel can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8128.