The new guy from Texas has an ambitious agenda for Tampa International Airport. Joe Lopano, who took over as chief executive in January, unveiled his plans this month to increase revenue and ridership, expand nonstop service to the West Coast and overseas, and strengthen the role the airport plays in the economic life of the Tampa Bay area. These are exciting goals, and Lopano can promote them with a management style that recognizes the airport as a truly public asset.
Lopano is a former marketing executive at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport who was hired with the express directive from the board to boost TIA's competitiveness. Lopano has moved quickly to deliver. His budget for next year includes incentives for airlines that offer new, nonstop service. The airport announced Thursday that twice-weekly nonstops to Zurich will begin in May, and Lopano is encouraged about landing routes to other European destinations, the West Coast and South America. He has promised to grow the airport's revenue next year even amid the slow economy, while cutting operating expenses. And he is undertaking a broad look at how to develop airport-owned property.
Lopano is departing from the approach of his predecessor, Louis Miller, who saw incentives as short-term investments that often did not pay for themselves. Miller focused on building TIA's cheap connections to domestic markets in the South and East, and on maintaining a clean and relaxing quality in the terminal building. But there is room — and it's imperative in this slow economy — for Tampa to both support its existing gateways and build new routes. The new leadership must balance these agendas and be willing to adjust if the business plan veers off course.
Lopano also should continue reaching out. He stumbled in his first few months, first by being slow to release public documents about the airport's new direction and later by defending spending practices on entertainment and travel that were lavish by Tampa Bay standards. Lopano should drop his contention that TIA operates entirely on user fees. Without tax subsidies, commercial airports would not exist. To his credit, he withdrew a plan to expand the use of business-class travel for the airport's executive team. And Lopano has vowed to hold public workshops on other major policy changes. This is a commitment to transparency that a publicly owned enterprise requires.
It will take time for Lopano to establish a record, but he is doing what he was hired to do and deserves a chance to make his mark. His new approach will also be a measure of the board's deftness in managing the public facility. Lopano is bullish in his outlook for the region, and that optimism should make Tampa International a bigger player in development efforts. He also expresses sensitivity for the paternal feelings locals have about the ambience of the airport, and he promises not to spoil it with commercialization and clutter. The region should hope he succeeds in moving a treasured asset to the next level.