When Jim Howes stepped into St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport for the first time in 1980, baggage claim was a patio.
Its terminal, built in 1957, looked more like a bus station than an airport. And the only air service to the place was provided by charter airlines.
Tonight, Howes, the airport's director, will preside over what he calls a "rededication" of the airport, following two years and about $4.6-million worth of renovations. Saturday, from 4 to 7 p.m., the airport will hold an open house for the public.
"This is really the culmination of the last couple of years' work at the airport," Howes said. "We're finally reaching the end of the road."
In the past few months, the airport has added a new glass-and-block facade that makes the entrance to the airport as bright as a big, narrow greenhouse.
It has doubled one side of its terminal building, and turned offices on the other side into four new gates. It also is renovating more office space at the airport's original control tower and adding 600 parking spaces by the end of April.
"It's really a whole new look," Howes said.
Yet for all the new shine and luster at the St. Petersburg-Clearwater airport, it still has a major problem.
It keeps losing air carriers.
Last July, budget carrier Air South moved from St. Petersburg-Clearwater to Tampa International Airport. Later that same month, Southwest Airlines picked TIA over St. Petersburg-Clearwater for its first West Florida operations, despite a hot courtship by Howes and Pinellas officials. And in October, fast-growing commuter Gulfstream International Airlines also hopped across the bay to TIA.
Howes is quick to point out that despite the lost carriers, his airport's traffic and profits are still rising.
Last year, about 1.09-million passengers passed through the airport, up from about 722,000 a year earlier. The airport had net income of $1.5-million last year, up from $1.1-million a year earlier.
The gains have been courtesy of the airport's two biggest carriers: Indianapolis' budget airline ATA and Largo-based Sun Jet International. "They've both just grown tremendously," Howes said.
Much of the renovation work at the airport, in fact, was to keep ATA from moving to TIA two years ago. ATA now takes the four new gates at the airport _ one side of the terminal building _ and its ticket counter fills much of the other side.
"We couldn't have stayed there" without the renovations, said Jim Hlavacek, executive vice president and chief operating officer for ATA. "We would have filled the whole airport and then some."
With ATA's emphasis on vacation travel (its slogan is "With ATA, You're on Vacation"), the company has 62 flights weekly from St. Petersburg-Clearwater. By this summer, it's planning to be up to 71 weekly flights, making it by far the dominant carrier at St. Petersburg-Clearwater.
Howes knows that the future of St. Petersburg-Clearwater, with all its new shine, depends on air carriers like ATA _ vacation-oriented carriers who shuttle visitors to Tampa Bay for Pinellas' beaches, not Tampa's businesses.
"We do have a market here _ a tourist market," Howes said. "And that market will continue to increase as long as we still have some of the best tourist attractions and beaches in the United States.
"And as far as I know, those aren't going to be moving anytime soon."