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Give airport idea a chance

The idea of merging Tampa Bay's two largest airports has been discussed quietly for years, but never very seriously and rarely in public. Thanks to Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman, the public silence has finally ended.

Unfortunately, Pinellas County officials reacted predictably, rejecting the idea out of hand and finding various reasons why it wouldn't work. They were too hasty. The idea deserves serious study, and Freedman deserves credit for raising it.

Tampa International Airport and St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport have always operated independently. The Tampa airport is run by the Hillsborough Aviation Authority, whose members are appointed by the governor. The St. Petersburg-Clearwater airport is run by the Pinellas County Commission.

The two airports aren't really competitors. They serve different segments of the flying public _ major carriers operate out of TIA, while charter services flock to St. Petersburg-Clearwater. The airlines have not yet followed the pattern of professional sports, playing one community off the other to get the best deal. But that could change as new carriers are created and begin looking for a place to land.

Freedman believes there might be some cost savings if the two airports were run by one authority, though she can't say for sure until a study is done. A recent effort at joint marketing also might benefit from a single authority, she said. "It just seemed like a natural," Freedman said.

Pinellas officials, however, seem to have already made up their minds. "I really don't know what she was thinking about when she threw that one on the table," said Pinellas County Administrator Fred Marquis. The biggest obstacle to a merger, Marquis said, involves the land surrounding St. Petersburg-Clearwater International. Much of it has been leased to businesses and government agencies, and the revenue from those agreements must be used for the airport.

It would be too risky to turn over all that real estate to an independent agency, Marquis said. What would happen to government agencies such as the courts and the Sheriff's Office if the merged authority decided to raise the rent or throw them off the land? "It becomes a hostage situation," Marquis said.

Marquis also worries about taking such an important economic power out of the hands of elected officials. He points to recent controversy about the amount of money Hillsborough's aviation members spend on travel. Elected officials are more sensitive to public sentiments, he said. That's a minor concern compared with the complexities of this issue.

Pinellas County Commission Chairman Charles Rainey said he sees nothing to gain from a merger. Since the two airports do not compete, the public likely would be better served by simply improving the joint marketing efforts.

Freedman said she was perplexed by the reaction. "I don't know why they're so defensive," she said.

One reason may be rooted in the contentious history of the bay area. The two airports were once equals, but that ended more than 30 years ago when the federal government designated Tampa as the regional airport. That decision had an enormous economic benefit to Hillsborough, and some people in Pinellas still regret the loss. Any merger would have to be done in a way that assures that neither side would have an advantage over the other.

Rainey said he's not opposed to studying the idea. "Sure, you can study it," Rainey said. "I don't even know where you'd begin."

Here's an idea: Officials from both sides of the bay can convene and talk about it. Rather than finding all the reasons it can't be done, they could focus on why it should be done. They might find enough reasons to conduct a serious study.

The Tampa Bay area ought to have reached a level of political maturity to do something as simple as that. It will be our shame if we cannot.