The governing board of Tampa International Airport is preparing to make a monumental decision for the region's economic future. The person it picks to replace just-departed director Louis Miller will impact the region's gateway for travel, trade and jobs as well as the first impression millions get of the bay area. The board needs to find a director who can build on the airport's reputation for comfort and convenience, and who can make Tampa more competitive for domestic and international flights. It should start by setting a clear vision for the airport.
The board began the formal part of its search Thursday by deciding to hire a headhunter to conduct a national search. But to attract the best candidates, the board must also do some work internally to repair the divisions revealed by Miller's resignation in February. New board members Steven Burton and Joseph Diaco accused Miller of misleading them, and an outside review found Miller had improperly approved height variances on airport land that should have been decided by a larger committee. However the board feels about Miller and his sudden decision to leave, he is gone and the task now is to find a capable successor.
The board's job is significant. With 17 million passengers every year, TIA is among the 30 busiest airports in the country. Miller was able to move Tampa forward through good times and bad. Over his 14 years as director, Miller built strong domestic service, updated passenger and parking areas and worked closely with the tourism and hospitality industries. His proactive nature and attention to detail also enabled Tampa to accommodate the many security enhancements required after the Sept. 11 attacks without making the airport ugly or a hassle.
The next director needs to show that same concern for the visitor experience. But he or she will also need the sophistication and expertise to grow the airport even as the airline industry looks to hold the line on capacity. TIA should explore new connections, both domestic and overseas. With the region considering a light-rail system, and with high-speed rail on the way between Tampa and Orlando, the next director also needs to ensure that the airport is a key player in connecting the region's transportation systems.
The governing board needs to get past personality conflicts to focus on the search itself. That means laying out a vision for the future and the role it will play in accomplishing those goals. TIA has had only two directors since Lyndon B. Johnson was president. That continuity helped make TIA a success. Miller has left big shoes to fill. The focus now needs to be on filling them.