Oh, how we love Tampa International Airport

TIA didn't rank in a recent survey of best airports. Its fans came out swinging.
Published November 21 2018

Tampa International Airport is so beloved that it even performs well in rankings for which it is not eligible.

Let me explain.

The Wall Street Journal recently came out with its first-ever list of top U.S. airports.

The scores were based on 15 measures of convenience, reliability and value, including on-time flights, security line wait times and an extensive reader survey.

Denver topped the list, followed by Orlando and Phoenix.

Tampa International didn’t make the cut, but for good reason. The Journal looked only at the country’s 20 busiest airports. TIA usually falls between 25th and 30th in passenger traffic.

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Despite the parameters, fans of the nation’s mid-sized airports lit up the comments section and took to Twitter. They made it clear that they thought the list was bunk. They’d rather risk week-old potato salad than navigate Los Angeles International. Invasive medical treatments were preferable to New York’s JFK or Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson.

The Journal captured the onslaught in a follow-up article that singled out the airports in Portland, Ore., and our own Tampa International as obvious reader favorites.

“Tampa Airport is hands down the best airport in the U.S. and the best that I have ever flown in or out of, and I have visited over 37 different countries,” Journal subscriber Omar Garcia wrote.

Jose Yantas tweeted: “I’d take a bullet for you @FlyTpa”.

We’re split on our politics, and fisticuffs are likely at the mention of light rail. We can’t even agree on a Bucs quarterback. But we’re proud of our airport. There are few local institutions so universally adored. Maybe Publix or some of our waterfront parks.

Our airport ranks near the top of so many surveys that if it falls out of the top five we question the methodology and suspect some sort of conspiracy.

“This has no @FlyTpa in it?” Clayton W. Francis asked last week via Twitter. “This list is a farce and lacks any credibility.”

In fairness, TIA doesn’t have to deal with some of the challenges faced by bigger airports. It sees about 20 million passengers a year, a number that has grown consistently since the last recession. Still, that’s one-fifth of Atlanta’s 100 million. Los Angeles gets about 80 million.

Those types of numbers put tremendous pressure on an airport, especially the ones with little room to expand or little desire to spend the money necessary to keep up with demand.

Tampa International has emphasized user-friendliness since it opened in 1971. The backbone is its efficient hub and spoke design. Parking is close by. Until recently, the rental cars were just a few steps from the luggage carousels. Now, they are a quick ride on a new rail system.

The airport has modernized along the way, adding new airsides and updating existing ones to keep up with traffic and travelers' expectations, including more charging stations and better dining options. However you feel about spending $2 billion on the current makeover, it will help keep the airport near the top of the rankings, and something to brag about.

One oft-cited nit is the time it takes for luggage to reach the carousels. Most of those delays are due to lightning storms forcing baggage handlers to take shelter, spokeswoman Emily Nipps wrote in an email.

“There’s not much we can do to deter the lightning,” she said. “But we know it’s frustrating to passengers, particularly when they can’t actually see the lightning in front of them.”

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For years, the biggest criticism was the lack of direct flights, both foreign and domestic. Canada and London were about as exotic as it got. While the international lineup remains relatively light, it now includes Zurich, Panama City, Reykjavik, Frankfurt, Havana, Cancun and Grand Cayman. Amsterdam is coming in May.

Airport officials have also secured many popular U.S. destinations, including San Francisco, San Diego, Seattle and Salt Lake City. In just the last two years, the airport has added about 40 domestic routes, thanks to 17 from Frontier Airlines alone.

One conspicuous absence: Portland, Ore., with the other revered mid-sized airport. It’s about time we connect these two standouts. Imagine all the happy travelers.

Contact Graham Brink at gbrink@tampabay.com. Follow @GrahamBrink.

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