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Pinellas airport puts focus on charter services

LARGO - St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport officials are launching a campaign to get more charter services to land there. After paying consultants about $50,000 to help get American Airlines and Midway Airlines to operate what turned out to be short-lived scheduled service in 1987, airport officials now are focusing their efforts on Canadian and European travel package tour wholesalers.

"We were working the wrong end of the spectrum," said County Administrator Fred Marquis of the ill-fated scheduled air carrier effort. "We need to get the charter tour wholesalers to book their business into this airport."

So when the Pinellas Tourist Development Council (TDC) makes sales trips to Europe and Canada now, airport officials will go with them to meet package tour brokers. The airport will be promoted in Pinellas tourist ads and the airport's own $16,000 ad budget may be increased.

Charles Rainey, chairman of both the County Commission and the TDC, instigated the move. He also created a TDC committee Wednesday that will advise the airport on ways to get more charter business.

Most Europeans vacation on package tours which offer them cut-rate air fares, hotels, rental cars and meals, all for one price.

Wholesalers organize the tours and sell them through a network of travel agents.

With the exception of two periodic flights for gamblers to Atlantic City and the Bahamas, almost all of the St. Petersburg-Clearwater airport's passenger traffic was generated by charter flights from Canada, which hit 32 departures a week in the winter.

The charter business is strong enough that even without American and Midway airlines, the Pinellas airport handled 5 percent more passengers in 1989 than 1988. But it's less than a third of the passenger traffic during the airport's glory days when now-defunct People Express Airlines flew into the Pinellas airport in 1984 and 1985.

The airport earned about $3.1-million last year, about $230,000 more than it cost to run it. Almost 40 percent of the income came from land leases in and around the 2,000-acre airport complex, which includes an industrial park, the Showboat Dinner Theater and Airco Flite golf course.

Pinellas tourist industry leaders think the charter business is ripe for picking. Most European charters now fly to Orlando, where monumental backups at U.S. Customs are common. Many European package tours now pair a stay at Walt Disney World with a few days at Pinellas beach hotels. At Tampa International Airport, overseas passengers must endure claiming their bags twice when they go through customs. Also, landing fees in Pinellas are less than a third of Tampa's fees.

The airport has received some $10-million worth of remodeling over the past five years. It just opened a $1.5-million customshouse that increased capacity from 120 passengers an hour to 600, the same as at Tampa International Airport. But the St. Petersburg-Clearwater customs operation empties visitors into the parking lot.

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