Tampa International Airport gets brief shot at courting pair of airlines

Tampa International Airport has the hots for Copa Airlines, and Virgin America is looking really beautiful.

Chris Minner, TIA's vice president of marketing and advertising, will have 30 minutes with each of them Monday to try to set up a second date.

About 350 delegates representing more than 30 airlines and 150 airports will be in Tampa for the Network USA 2012 conference, a "speed dating" event for airline route planners.

Minner will have until the music plays to make the delegates fall in love with Tampa International before he will have to move on to the next table. The one-on-one meetings will be held in a large conference room at the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay. A countdown clock projected on the wall will let delegates know how much time they have left on each "date."

Airport executives will use the meetings to make their pitches to various domestic and international airlines in an attempt to expand service in their markets. For TIA, that means trying to get a call back from airlines like Copa, which flies out of Panama, and Virgin America, which could connect Tampa to San Francisco and other cities on the West Coast.

"We've got to make the compelling case that they will make a greater profit flying through Tampa than anywhere else," Minner said.

And Tampa has the good looks, the serious relationship experience and money to make itself attractive to potential mates.

In Copa's case, Minner said, he will bring up the fact that they have a mutual friend in USF's Health International Foundation, which has a campus in Panama City. He hopes to use that business linkage to recruit the airline to offer direct routes to the region.

In June, the airport's governing board approved an incentives plan for new airlines starting daily service out of Tampa. An airline starting daily flights to Europe with a widebody 767 jet can get nearly $2.5 million in airport fee waivers and advertising money over two years. Shorter international flights and new domestic service qualify for smaller incentives.

That plan, combined with the proven success TIA has had with other airlines, as well as the natural beauty of the Tampa Bay area, will help the airport reel in some new routes, CEO Joe Lopano said.

"Tampa is on a roll, and we're beginning to demonstrate, not with analysis and paper, but with aircraft and people flying that this market is viable," he said.

JetBlue Airways announced last month that it will begin offering daily flights to New York City and Washington, D.C., in June, and Spirit Airlines announced that it will be offering nonstop flights from Tampa to Dallas/Fort Worth in May.

Tampa is already the country's second-largest gateway to Cuba, and will offer nonstop flights to Zurich in May.

Each of these recent expansions, Lopano said, will be part of the airport's pitch to potential airlines during the conference.

Still, Tampa currently averages just 24 nonstop flights a week outside the United States, composed mostly of flights to Canada and British Airways' daily flights to London.

That leaves Tampa trailing behind airports like Miami International, which averages 1,300 nonstop flights, Fort Lauderdale, which averages 359, and Orlando International and Orlando Sanford International, which offer 199 combined.

The airport has data showing that Tampa travelers book their flights here, but drive to Orlando or Miami for flights out of the country, Minner said.

Using that information, the airport has identified five target destinations it would like to serve with direct routes: Frankfurt, Germany; Panama City, Panama; Bogota, Colombia; Sao Paulo, Brazil; and Mexico City. Minner said direct flights out of Tampa to those locations could be very successful.

Increasing routes to Tampa isn't just good business for the airport, either.

Minner said just adding one daily, nonstop flight to a European city would generate $154 million a year in spending to the area.

"For us to bring in this conference and to bring in these airlines from all around the world, to shine a light on our region, is critical for us not only as an economic development opportunity but also to increase global access for our entire region," Minner said.

So he will make sure he brings his A game on this date.

Tampa International Airport gets brief shot at courting pair of airlines 03/03/12 [Last modified: Saturday, March 3, 2012 3:31am]

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