Tampa International Airport needs to think through the idea of offering incentives for more flights. The tactic is a gamble that has not always worked for other communities. Giving incentives to the airlines could unleash a bidding war, waste public money and distract the airport from its core mission.
Interim airport director John Wheat is considering a range of incentives to induce carriers to fly more nonstops out of Tampa. The public board that oversees the airport could not write a check — federal laws prohibit that. But the airport could waive fees, subsidize an airline's marketing campaign and seek guarantees from the flying public.
Wheat said the airport would poll the Tampa Bay business community to assess whether any destinations are particularly underserved. With that data, the airport could gauge whether the private sector would commit to buying a set number of seats that would be enough for an airline to establish a route. The airport could sweeten a deal by waiving fees for carriers or co-funding advertising.
There is value in polling the business community regardless of what happens with incentives. TIA knows when and where its passengers fly, but it has no idea whether the flying public comes from any specific industry or corporate base. That information would be helpful to the airport, area hotels, the tourism industry and regional job-development associations. The airport should plow ahead and revisit the marketing study on a regular basis.
But offering incentives should be a separate question from whether the customer base is there. Incentives can be counterproductive if they — instead of growing the airport's business — become the basis for retaining carriers. The airport would then put itself in the position of chasing its tail. The flying public wants certainty, not routes that always change. And public money could still go to subsidize any private sector guarantees. Hillsborough County taxpayers commit hundreds of thousands of dollars every year to local chambers of commerce and job-development efforts. It is not fair to siphon away public funds meant for general aviation to serve the convenience of niche travelers.