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Landing international tourists

An effort to add a quarter-mile to the runway at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport could create new tourism opportunities for the bay area by opening the door for trans-Atlantic charters.

That is the motivation behind a $16.7-million plan by local aviation and tourism leaders to enhance services at the Pinellas County-owned airport on Tampa Bay. With a longer runway, the airport would be able to accommodate nonstop flights from Europe and market itself as an attractive destination for European tour operators who book Florida vacations.

Driving the quest are some telling figures.

Nearly 1-million Europeans vacationed in Pinellas County last year but more than half of them landed in Orlando. International tours are big business at Orlando Sanford International Airport, the Orlando area's secondary airport where charters from the United Kingdom represent 80 percent of the airport's 1.2-million passengers.

Pinellas County leaders see an opportunity for St. Petersburg Clearwater International to build a similar niche: direct service to the beaches.

If it all comes together, officials say, the international charters could lure a projected 81,000 more tourists here annually who would contribute $44-million into the local economy.

"It gives us a whole new opportunity," said Carole Ketterhagen, director of St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. "If the runway is longer, we do have an opportunity to bring in international charters from Europe, from South America, even possibly from western Canada."

Not everyone, however, welcomes the project.

In an Oct. 29 letter to the airport, Oldsmar City Manager Bruce Haddock said the city was "concerned the extension of this runway will cause an increase in noise over the city."

Oldsmar's complaints with airplane noise date back to the mid 1990s, after neighboring Safety Harbor residents complained about the roar of the airplanes over their homes, said City Council member David Tilki. In response, officials at the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport moved the flight patterns slightly to the east.

That caused Oldsmar to inherit the problem, Tilki said.

"They shifted the flight patterns and said they don't affect anybody anymore and yet they come right over our living rooms," Tilki said.

Fearing that the expansion will increase the number of noisy planes over the city, the Oldsmar City Council last week unanimously asked City Attorney Tom Trask to draft a resolution opposing the expansion.

"So you want me to prepare a resolution then that says you want them to change their flight pattern?" Trask asked.

"I don't think we have a chance at that," Tilki said. "I don't think we have a chance at any of it. But I think we should be opposed to any expansion which would allow increased flights, which would increase the noise over Oldsmar."

Gathering support

Winning approval from the Federal Aviation Authority to extend runway 17L-35R is no sure thing. The airport must conduct economic and environmental studies and prove the runway will be used. Construction of the new extension would begin in 2004.

To make their case, tourism and airport officials are in England this week meeting with tour operators, seeking support for the project.

In March, they hope to make the pitch to German tour operators and eventually, do the same in several Latin American countries.

County tourism officials also are approaching tour operators in western Canada, where nonstop flights to Florida also could require the longer runway.

"We consider the whole world an opportunity," said Elaine Smalling, recently hired as the airport's first marketing director.

A colorful marketing brochure produced by the airport bills it as, "a more convenient approach to Tampa Bay" that offers, "effortless navigation from airside to curbside. Customs cleared before the passport stamp dries."

"If you look at the type of traffic we have, we're primarily a tourism airport," said director David Metz. "I think that is our role; that's our opportunity. Tour operators fit with that."

More fuel, longer runway

St. Petersburg-Clearwater International's 8,500-foot runway can accommodate virtually any type of aircraft. However, when those planes are fully fueled to cross the Atlantic nonstop, the airplanes weigh more and need a 10,000-foot runway to get off the ground.

The airport offers international flights to several Canadian cities, but can't add trans-Atlantic flights without a runway expansion, 90 percent of which would be paid for with a federal grant with 5 percent matches from the state and the airport.

"It gives an airport a whole lot more flexibility to market yourself if you don't have that restriction," Smalling said. "They can't come forward and say, "Well your runway isn't long enough.' "

In August, a delegation of local tourism officials met with tour operators in England. That effort has generated one corporate supporter for the expansion project.

The managing director of Travel City Direct, a tour operator with offices around England, wrote that the company is interested in starting service to St. Petersburg-Clearwater International. The company now flies more than 100,000 people to Orlando Sanford International, Metz said.

Travel City Direct could sponsor at least 52 trips a year, which could grow to 104 annually, wrote managing director Geoff Medhurst.

"However, the current runway lengths available at the airport pose a significant hindrance to the future success of any nonstop air services that we are contemplating," said Medhurst. "We stand ready to support your runway improvements in any way possible."

Despite dropoffs in tourism in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, local leaders say they are looking at this project for its long-term economic benefits.

The expansion project has the support of Tampa International Airport, which only periodically has charters, said spokeswoman Brenda Geoghagan. Officials from that airport have been working with St. Petersburg-Clearwater International on the marketing effort.

TIA specializes in larger commercial carriers, so charters are not competition, she said.

"If St. Petersburg-Clearwater brings in these charters and that's their niche, that benefits the whole Tampa Bay area," Geoghagan said. "We're all going to reap the benefits."

Local officials say there are enough tourists to go around, although St. Petersburg-Clearwater will compete with Orlando Sanford, Metz said. He said they will look to work cooperatively with the other airport so people can arrive at one and depart from the other in packages that offer the best of Florida's theme parks and beaches.

Orlando Sanford has been in the charter business since 1996, said Michael Caires, a spokesman for the airport's terminal management company.

The Orlando Sanford airport, 16 miles from downtown Orlando and 46 miles from Walt Disney World, has seen its annual passenger totals explode from 100,000 in 1995. This year, it expects to exceed last year's 1.2-million passengers, he said. Just under 1-million of those passengers come from United Kingdom charters. The peak tour season is April to October.

Convenience and affordability sell the airport to tour operators, Caires said.

"It's definitely a good option because people are leisure travelers and they want nothing more than to get going on their holiday," he said. "A smaller airport lends itself to that."

The local delegation in London this week will represent the area in a booth at the World Trade Market, an international tourism trade show. County Commission Chairman Calvin Harris is on the trip to show tour operators the runway expansion effort has the support of local government.

"We're in the perfect position," Harris said. "All our potential is here. Now, it's all coming together."

_ Times staff writer Ed Quioco contributed to this report.