Tampa International Airport's new management got something to crow about Thursday: a new nonstop overseas flight.
Tiny leisure carrier Edelweiss Air committed to launch nonstop service from Tampa to Switzerland starting next year.
Edelweiss will begin flying between Tampa and Zurich twice weekly in May 2012 for the summer tourist season. The carrier will scale back to one weekly flight for winter.
The deal, sealed with $700,000 in incentives from the airport and local tourism agencies, marks TIA's first new flights to Europe in 15 years, said airport CEO Joe Lopano.
Tampa International's roster of international destinations is woefully thin with London, Cancun, Mexico, Grand Cayman and four Canadian cities: Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa and Halifax.
European tourists will buy most of the tickets for flights in an Airbus 330 jet with 332 seats, said Michael Trestl, business development manager for Edelweiss. "But there will be an opportunity for a large number of passengers from the U.S.,'' he said.
A round-trip in coach sold for $1,454 Thursday.
The airline considered continuing a flight from Orlando to Zurich but decided the Tampa Bay area could generate more high-paying business travelers, Trestl said.
Lopano emphasized the importance of the community buying tickets on Edelweiss.
"This is a demonstration to everybody whether this market can support international flights,'' he told a crowd gathered at TIA for the announcement.
The airport has long been a favorite with travelers and a source of local pride. But Tampa International's lack of nonstop service to continental Europe and Latin America remains a sore spot for people tired of making connections in Atlanta, Charlotte and New York.
After veteran executive director Louis Miller resigned under pressure last year, the airport's governing board made clear to candidates for the job that they considered new international service a top priority.
Last fall, the board hired Lopano, a vice president at Dallas-Fort Worth International and its top airline recruiter. He arrived in January and hired consultants to identify targets for new overseas flights. Lopano persuaded the board to adopt the airport's first program of airline incentives.
Zurich wasn't on the consultant's list of five top targets: Frankfurt, Germany; Mexico City; Panama City, Panama; Bogota, Colombia; and Sao Paulo, Brazil. Nor was Edelweiss, with a fleet of five jets, on the list of target airlines.
On Thursday, Lopano estimated the new service will create $32 million in economic benefit annually and 265 jobs in Tampa Bay.
Michael Boyd, an aviation consultant in Evergreen, Colo., called the numbers overblown.
"I'd seriously question $32 million in economic impact from two charter flights a week,'' he said. "A lot of those people are going to get off the plane, get on I-4 and go to Orlando.''
Tampa International Airport is giving Edelweiss $500,000 in cash and fee waivers over two years. Visit St. Pete/Clearwater will contribute $140,000 to promote the flights in Switzerland over the same period. Tampa Bay & Co., Hillsborough County's quasi-public tourism agency, will kick in $60,000.
The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce offered free event sponsorships and event promotions valued at $175,000.
The Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp. scripted a two-year business recruitment plan and will help Edelweiss pay to carry it out, said chairwoman Rhea Law. She valued the package at upwards of $300,000.
Zurich is Switzerland's largest city with a metro population of 2 million. The city is home to several global financial companies.
There are more than a dozen bay area businesses owned by Swiss conglomerates, from UBS Securities to staffing firm Adecco USA to the Zephyrhills brand of spring water operation sold regionally by a division of Nestlé.
Metrohm USA Inc., a Swiss-owned company that sells analytical equipment to chemists worldwide, is among those poised to capitalize on the new connection.
With offices in Riverview and its international headquarters in Herisau, Switzerland, Metrohm employees make 20 to 40 round trips a year between the two countries.
"This is certainly welcome news for one of TIA's steady customers," Metrohm spokeswoman Marguerite Hisen said.
Hotels, restaurants and other businesses catering to tourists will likely get a boost.
Some 111,000 Swiss travelers came to Florida last year, says Visit Florida, the state's tourism agency. With 66,000 visitors for the first six months of 2011, Switzerland ranks 18th among international feeder markets, just behind Panama and ahead of Norway.
"It's not a huge population,'' said D.T. Minich, executive director of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater. "But they have a lot of money.''
Contact Steve Huettel at [email protected] or (813) 226-3384.