For all its many accolades, Tampa International Airport has long trailed other major Florida airports in flights to international destinations.
That sore point sparked a remarkably sharp discussion between Hillsborough County Aviation Authority board members Thursday. In a 3-2 vote, the panel endorsed an unscheduled proposal for a new committee that would sharpen efforts to attract flights to more international locations.
Steven Burton, a Tampa lawyer who joined the board in August, said "tens of tens" of business people complained to him that they couldn't get nonstop flights to major international cities. Orlando and Fort Lauderdale had significant growth in international traffic this year, he said.
Burton said Louis Miller, the authority's executive director, gave him "a Heisman Trophy stiff arm" when he asked to talk with staffers and see the agency's plan for recruiting international carriers. Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, who serves on the board, called his proposal "disrespectful." Board members should set policy, she said, then let Miller bring back specific actions.
"If we continue down this road ... we're going to take on one of the best-run airports in the nation and take it down a notch," said Iorio, who was on the short end of the vote with chairman Al Austin.
Hillsborough County Commission chairman Ken Hagan and Joseph Diaco, a Tampa surgeon, joined Burton in voting for the committee.
Airlines fly to three international destinations nonstop from Tampa throughout the year: London (British Airways), Toronto (Air Canada) and the Cayman Islands (Cayman Airways). Nonstop flights go to three more Canadian cities - Montreal, Ottawa and Halifax - during the winter season.
Consultants studied in 2006 how many travelers from an 11-county area in west-central Florida flew to 25 international cities nonstop or with connections. Their conclusion: There wasn't demand for airlines to fly direct from Tampa International. An update this summer showed even less demand now, Miller said.
JetBlue Airways took a shot in December 2008 with one daily flight to Cancun and back using a compact, 100-seat jet. The discount carrier suspended flights in May after the U.S. government warned against travel to Mexico during the H1N1 virus outbreak. It then ended the route in September.
Major airlines pick new routes carefully. They often demand local communities fork over subsidies, from waivers of airport fees to millions in cash, to help mitigate their risk.
Orlando International reported 2.9 million international travelers flew through the airport for the year ending Sept. 30. That was a record for a 12-month period and an 8.1 percent increase from a year earlier.
"We do not have a Disney World or something that draws people here automatically," Miller said at the meeting.
Burton shot back, "We don't have Disney World. But Fort Lauderdale doesn't and they have increasing international flights."
Tampa International already has a committee made up of area tourism and economic development officials to advise the airport on new international routes.
But the panel meets only a couple of times a year, Burton said. He wants the new panel to gather monthly and report directly to the authority board.
Burton volunteered to chair the committee, which would include Miller, staffers and business people.
Steve Huettel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3384.