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TIA traffic count still soaring

TIA officials have expansion on their minds as passenger numbers show continued strength.

Elbow room is rapidly becoming a premium commodity at Tampa International Airport.

The torrid pace of the growth in passenger traffic through the facility, which started airport officials thinking about expansion projects months ago, picked up again in June by a startling 11.21 percent.

That gave TIA an overall increase in passenger traffic of 9.28 percent for the first six months of the year.

And all indications point to July, far from the airport's historically busiest month, as even busier than June. An average of 10,027 vehicles passed through airport parking facilities daily in June. In July, the average soared to 10,500. Passenger numbers for July won't be available until later this month.

June was the fifteenth consecutive month in which the airport showed passenger increases. And in 14 of those months, the airport's growth exceeded the national average of 3.2 percent. Growth figures for 1999 through June haven't fallen below 5.5 percent in any given month. (See chart.)

Officials of the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority keep saying the growth has to slow down, but each month's statistics prove them wrong.

"Surely the figures for August and September won't be that high because it's the end of the summer," said spokeswoman Brenda Geoghagan. "But we keep saying that, don't we?"

Tampa International Airport officials have been working hard to increase the number of airlines and the number of flights available there, with a particular emphasis on service to Latin American markets.

Airlines tend to put planes where the passengers are, so consistently full flights to and from TIA are the best way to generate additional service and increase revenue for both the airlines and the airport.

The soaring use of TIA underscores the area's population growth and healthy tourist economy as well as the growth of business and industry in the region, particularly in high-tech industries establishing themselves in Hillsborough and Pinellas Counties.

At the start of 1998, airport growth was rocking along at a modest pace and actually took a 5 percent dip in March. But except for September of that year, when growth fell to 1.29 percent, the numbers have been above average. The peak month was March of this year, when growth hit 13.37 percent, helped considerably by the presence of the NCAA's Final Four tournament in St. Petersburg.

Setting that month aside as an aberration, June's 11.21 percent was the largest spurt in a "normal" traffic month.

The Aviation Authority staff is already moving to accommodate the growth. There is $4.5-million in the budget, which will be presented to the board in September, to begin demolition and reconstruction of Airside E, one of two airsides not now in use. Eventually, the other empty airside, B, also will be torn down and rebuilt.

There is another $4.2-million to create a lower-cost remote parking lot where airport employees now park, near the post office.

Louis Miller, executive director of the authority, said if the current expansion of baggage delivery systems proves inadequate, rental car facilities will be moved out of the Landside Terminal to give baggage even more room.

Bucking the passenger trend, USAir Express saw a passenger reduction of nearly 55 percent in June, but Miller said it wasn't significant.

"US Airways shifts passengers back and forth between their flights and USAir Express flights," he said. "That's just the way they do business. The number of passengers involved isn't very big."

USAir Express reported a drop in passenger traffic of 8,876 for June. At the same time, US Airways picked up 9,639.

Of more significance was the growth in the budget airline, AirTran, formerly known as ValuJet. It flew 11,645 more passengers in June than in June a year earlier.

"That one makes some sense," Miller said. "They are slowly building their system. And people are gaining confidence in flying them."

Other big performers among the major carriers were Southwest, which flew 44,742 more passengers into or out of Tampa in June than a year earlier, an increase of nearly 32 percent, and United, which flew 11,631 more passengers in June than a year earlier, a gain of nearly 22 percent.