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Quite a comeback

Tampa Bay's other airport was on a roll when Noah Lagos arrived as its new director in early 2004.

St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport basked in a record year, driven by of a pair of ambitious but financially shaky airlines.

By year end, locally owned Southeast Airlines closed for good, leaving passengers stranded and employees holding worthless paychecks. ATA Airlines, the airport's largest carrier, filed for bankruptcy reorganization and soon announced plans to yank all its local flights. Passenger numbers plummeted by half in 2005.

It wasn't a new story line. Tiny St. Petersburg-Clearwater International had suffered declines when People Express, American Airlines and other carriers left for various reasons. Business at the airport has been "a roller coaster ride though time," Lagos said.

The dips and climbs are finally leveling out.

St. Petersburg-Clearwater now has a dominant carrier with staying power. Allegiant Air, a widely admired low-cost airline, ranks among the most consistently profitable in the United States. It launched local service to South Bend, Ind., in 2006 and now flies to 20 small cities in the East and Midwest, some only seasonally.

The newest flights — to Youngstown, Ohio — were announced last week and start Nov. 17. St. Petersburg-Clearwater has grown into Allegiant's second-busiest airport.

The airport also completed a two-year renovation in June. The place used to resemble a Greyhound terminal, with padded vinyl seats and worn carpeting. Locals could hardly miss the stark contrast with immaculately maintained Tampa International, just 11 miles east.

The $21 million makeover gave the terminal, parts of which date back to 1956, a bright look and modern-day functionality. Painted wood ticket counters with Corian tops look like they belong in an upscale hotel. Columns once wrapped with scuffed-up aluminum now match the wood decor.

Workers replaced the old seating with more than 1,000 Herman Miller airport "sling chairs'' at $775 apiece.

Emily Davidson of Chiefland noticed a different feel to the gate area — expanded to hold 460 seats — as she waited Thursday for a flight to South Bend, Ind.

"I remember it was kind of dirty and just seemed hot," she said. "It was very crowded. This is more organized."

Nipping at a bigger rival

St. Petersburg-Clearwater competes with TIA only on the margins. TIA handles nearly 17 million passengers a year; the Pinellas airport about 750,000, though that's nearly twice as many as the year before Allegiant arrived.

They occasionally bump heads trying to attract new airline service — or keep each other from stealing an existing flight.

Lagos acknowledges the obvious: Tampa International offers far more amenities, from dining and shopping choices to valet parking and airline clubs. But he knows he can compete on costs — St. Petersburg-Clearwater charges carriers about $2 per passenger, compared to $5.19 at TIA. And many travelers prefer an airport where ticket counters are a short walk from the gate and drivers park outside bag claim to pick up friends and relatives.

"Rental cars are right outside the door,'' said Susan Jones of Lexington, Ky. "At Orlando (International), it took an hour just to get off airport property.''

Lagos won the last battle by persuading Frontier Airlines to move its Milwaukee and Omaha, Neb., flights over from Tampa International in the next few months.

The Frontier pickup is a big deal, as the six-days-a-week Milwaukee flight should attract more business travelers, he said. Allegiant typically flies from two to four times a week to any destination, too infrequently to match the busy schedules of business travelers.

Frontier cited cheaper airport costs as the top reason for moving. It also wanted to differentiate itself from AirTran, which already flies to Milwaukee from TIA, and Southwest, which plans to start this fall.

Lagos insists the remodeled terminal made a difference, too.

Frontier would not agree to move from Tampa, he said, unless St. Petersburg-Clearwater had loading bridges, the enclosed walkways that keep passengers dry and cool as they walk on and off flights. They're standard equipment at most decent-sized airports.

Until two bridges were installed in November, the Pinellas airport rolled up boarding ramps for each airliner. Allegiant still insists on ramps. Moving passengers through front and rear doors with ramps is faster than funneling them through the front on a jet bridge, says the airline. The time savings helps keep planes on schedule.

Passengers don't see many of the terminal improvements: new bag belts, elevators and air conditioning chillers.

Still, Jeff Geiser of Sarasota liked what he could see on Thursday, as he sipped a Bud Light at the new Tampa Bay Cafe and Bar.

Geiser, 47, came to St. Petersburg-Clearwater because of the $114 round-trip fare on Allegiant to South Bend. He liked the quick check-in line and the airport's new, bright look.

"They cleaned it up a lot," he said. "I'll be checking this out more often."

Potential turbulence

St. Petersburg-Clearwater faces some risk by relying so much on Allegiant, which flies nine out of every 10 passengers going through the airport, said aviation consultant Michael Boyd of Evergreen, Colo.

Besides Allegiant and Frontier, four small carriers fly sparse schedules to Biloxi, Miss., the Bahamas, Toronto and Halifax, Nova Scotia.

"There's no guarantee (Allegiant) won't come in someday and say they're moving everything," he said. But it's unlikely as long as Lagos keeps the carrier's airport costs in line.

St. Petersburg-Clearwater is doing better than most of the dozen or so secondary airports that compete directly with a bigger, nearby rival, Boyd said. The airport in Sanford, for instance, is hurting more now that Allegiant is moving jets to nearby Orlando International.

Secondary airports also know that they won't likely persuade a major airline to split flights between two airports in the same market. It would cost too much to build up staff, mechanics and other operations in two locations.

St. Petersburg-Clearwater isn't big enough to handle a Southwest or Delta. But it could fit in other "brand-name airlines'' that fly to Tampa Bay or would like to, Lagos said.

"We're not going to turn anybody away,'' he said. "But we welcome the trend of stability.''

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

Tale of Two AirportsTampa Intl.St. Petersburg/Clearwater Intl.
Passengers (2009)17 million776,535
Destinations6927
Gates 599
Airlines205
Source: airports

Quite a comeback 09/24/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 28, 2010 1:52pm]

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