Tuesday, July 17, 2018
Opinion

Column: Tampa International Airport growing in many ways

With less than a year to go on construction of the first phase of the Tampa International Airport expansion, we are moving forward with the next phase: a curbside expansion with express lanes for travelers with no checked bags and a 17-acre real estate development. Our third and final phase, proposed for some time after 2020, will be a 16-gate airside.

As the gateway to the west coast of Florida, it's essential that the airport grow at a pace consistent with Tampa Bay, one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the country.

We're already bursting at the seams. Though the numbers of takeoffs and landings are flat, airlines are flying bigger, fuller planes. (It's not your imagination: There really is less leg room.) That means more people use the airport than ever before. We served nearly 2 million passengers in March, marking the busiest month in the airport's history. Peaks and valleys occur, but the numbers show us meeting passenger forecasts developed during the planning of the expansion in 2012.

Since then, we've seen a 12.5 percent increase in passengers and anticipate serving a record number this year. With new service to Panama, Germany, Cuba and, soon, Iceland, international passenger traffic has increased more than 100 percent. Those flights and new service to Seattle and San Francisco support our tourism economy as well as the growth of other business sectors that rely on easy access to domestic and international flights.

Our financial picture is also strong. Even in the midst of a $971.9 million expansion, Wall Street has given us an enthusiastic nod of approval: Tampa International is the only airport in North America with Double A ratings from four different bond rating agencies. In giving those ratings, agencies cited diverse revenue streams and conservative management of our capital program.

Phase one funding comes from a variety of sources. User fees attached to car rentals cover almost all the cost of the rental car center, an approach common nationwide for such facilities. Visitors largely pay those fees, but Tampa Bay residents and visitors alike will benefit from the resulting decongestion of roads and passenger dropoff and pickup areas. Bonds backed by airport revenues and user fees attached to airline tickets cover about 33 percent of the project. The state of Florida also invested nearly $200 million in the program, a generous contribution to a vital state asset that supports more than 81,000 jobs and generates $7.8 billion in economic output each year, according to the Florida Department of Transportation.

In addition to the lasting benefits of the project, the construction itself has had a huge impact on local businesses. More than 8,500 people have worked on this expansion in some way. Most of the nearly 400 contractors and subcontractors are Florida-based or have regional offices here. More than $166 million is going to businesses owned by women and minorities.

Future phases will also benefit our growing community — during construction and for years after cranes come down and hammers stop swinging. The final, three-phase buildout will allow the airport to serve more than 34 million passengers annually.

To get there, though, we have to build.

The state budget passed by the Florida Legislature this year requests an audit of our capital program. We welcome any type of scrutiny. Transparency and accountability are core values of this airport's management team.

Through monthly updates at our board meetings, we keep the public apprised of construction schedules (we reported in February that the expansion's opening date is delayed, which is not unusual for a project of this size), financial metrics (the expansion is within the board-approved budget) and passenger numbers. Anyone can also easily access that information — and more — on our website, tampaairport.com.

As we continue to grow with and for Tampa Bay, we pledge to maintain a commitment to transparency and regular reporting of our true performance, as well as the highest levels of convenience and customer service that make Tampa International one of the most loved airports in America.

Joe Lopano is CEO of Tampa International Airport.

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