As a preteen in the Sarasota area, trips to the airport did not exactly fill me with delight and anticipation.
The idea of trekking through lines of people, worrying up until the last minute that I might miss my flight and sitting in cramped quarters for hours in stale air thousands of feet above the ground were all scenarios I could do without.
Yet something about Tampa International Airport felt different. As we made the drive past the Howard Frankland Bridge, drawing ever close to the airport’s base, I was taken by a small sense of ease. I had never had an interminably long line at Tampa airport, I’d never lost a suitcase there, I’d never had that horror travel story that you repeat over dinner to knowing nods.
Coming back to Tampa was quite literally like coming home the second I stepped in the terminal. Home for me meant bounding toward the monorail gates, sometimes letting a train go so I could secure a seat at the front, my nose pressed to the glass.
It turns out I’m not alone. There’s something about Tampa International Airport that resonates with people and makes them want to come back. That was abundantly clear when we put out a call for answers to the eternal question: What makes Tampa Airport so beloved to so many people, locals and travelers alike?
The call was prompted by a comment on Reddit from a local who said their favorite place in Tampa was, in fact, Tampa International Airport. In a sprawling metropolitan area where there’s never a shortage of things to do, picking an airport as your favorite destination says something.
You all were not shy about responding to our query. Our initial tweet garnered almost 40 responses and a Facebook post on the Tampa Bay Times’ account yielded more than 100 comments. Some of you sent us private emails about your love for the airport.
Through these responses, a few common themes emerged—a partial formula that contributes to why people love this airport so much.
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For so many of you, the airport’s design, with its hub-and-spoke model, a central main building and multiple terminals connected by a monorail-like system, was a major positive.
The spoke and hub design means no crazy long walks. Wide terminals with fast check-in lines. Clean. Great food. Good parking. What else do you need?— Janice Craig (@JaniceCraig12) April 2, 2019
The airport was very intentionally crafted to curb the distance the average passenger would walk through the airport. When the airport first opened in 1971, their hope was to keep a passenger’s average walk at 600 feet, wrote former Tampa Bay Times reporter Bill Adair in a 1996 story on the 25th anniversary of the airport’s opening.
That mentality informs not just Tampa’s terminals but its parking and rental cars. The parking garage was planned by airport consultant Leigh Fisher to be on top of the main terminal and the airport previously had one of the shortest walks to the rental car lot.
Still, there have been some changes to this model. In 2018, the airport opened their new rental car center, accessible from the main terminal by a 1.4-mile-long train, similar to the trams passengers take to get to and from the main building. Passengers at the time offered varying reviews on the tram’s accessibility, proving that any change to Tampa airport’s interface can prompt immediate opinions.
Many of our respondents compared Tampa airport with the country’s biggest airports, like those in Miami, Atlanta and New York City, and noted one big difference. They did not find themselves walking or, let’s be honest, half-jogging through the airport for long distances to make their next flight or reach their final destination.
One commenter compared Tampa with Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, where they said they had worked for 26 years and two international air carriers.
“Trust me when I tell you that TIA has it all over ATL,” they wrote. “...The many concourses that branch out from the core with their own TSAs, light-filled trams and short walks to high-ceiling glassed gate areas—a great change from ATL’s crowded underground trains and marathon-length dark concourses.”
In the summer of 2015, a 6-year-old boy was traveling to Houston from Tampa airport and left his toy tiger behind somewhere in Tampa’s terminals. His mother contacted the airport to hopefully find the toy and it unleashed a viral adventure of some sorts for the stuffed animal. An airport manager took Hobbes, the stuffed tiger, all around the airport, to the air traffic control tower, to get gelato, to work out at the employee gym.
When the young boy returned to Tampa airport, he found both his tiger and a scrapbook full of new memories the tiger had made at the airport.
That type of customer service is what makes the Tampa airport special, people say. Political consultant Shannon Love once tweeted at the airport lamenting the fact that they did not have charging stations at the time (they do have them now). The airport quickly responded, asking for Love’s gate and telling her they would bring her a charger. As she boarded her plane, she returned her charger to the gate.
Because you can tweet you need a charger and they bring it to you! The customer service is top notch.— Shannon Love (@ShannonLoveFL) April 2, 2019
Another Twitter commenter echoed the sentiments of the airport’s tiger story. Her 7-year-old left her bag and favorite toy in the airport’s bathroom, but the family only realized it after they had left the terminal. They returned to security and told the TSA agent, who quickly ran over to the bathroom and returned the purse and stuffed sheep to her daughter.
...asked someone to cover her so she could run over there. She came back a few minutes later and handed back the Totoro purse with Ruben, a green minecraft sheep, to my daughter and both of their faces lit up. Little acts of kindness go a long way to making this my fave airport!— T$ (@MidoriLavender) April 2, 2019
“Little acts of kindness go a long way to making this my fave airport!” she tweeted.
When Tampa airport began its more than $900 million renovation project, the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority chose a combination of 65 restaurants and stores that would represent both large chains that tend to populate airports and local businesses.
That touch of local, including the popular Columbia restaurant, Buddy Brew Coffee and the Cafe by Mise En Place, is something frequent flyers find special about the airport. They don’t have to go far to enjoy some of their Tampa Bay spots whereas you may be lucky to find a wilted, days-old salad in many airports.
When Tampa Airport first opened in 1971, both gum and popcorn were barred from being sold. Why? The airport’s innovative system of wall-to-wall carpeting. The stickiness of gum and the smell of popcorn did not pair well with that.
That reputation of cleanliness remains today, although the airport started selling gum in 1998.
On Tuesday afternoon, 64-year-old Kyle Jensen, a frequent traveler at Tampa airport, noted just how clean the airports are.
“This is one of the best, if not the best, airports,” Jensen said. “They’ve got their act together.”
Jensen sat next to Canadian couple Linda Hillier-Smith and Wayne Smith, who travel here a few times a year.
“It’s immaculate,” Jensen said, noting how clean the airport was.
“True,” the couple immediately chimed in.
“The bathrooms are very clean,” Jensen said.
The couple nodded along, showing how Tampa airport’s brand can even unite passengers on a random traveling day.
For an airport that will soon be turning 50, it is still extremely efficient and modern. It is clean, bright, warm and inviting. Travel anywhere else and not too many newer airports match that.— Matt Sammon (@SammonSez) April 2, 2019
Plus my dad helped build half the buildings there so I have a sentimental attachment.
It’s simply not other airports
It seems like the real predictor for loving Tampa International Airport is having flown out of other major regional hubs first. Many of you compared the airport directly to Miami and Orlando, two of Florida’s largest airports. Tampa ranked favorably in your eyes.
It's simply ease of use. I grew up flying out of MCO and there's no comparison. I'll fly out of TPA even if it costs a little more for a particular flight.— Bort (@SenatorGiggity) April 2, 2019
So is there anything wrong with the Tampa Airport?
Like anything else, Tampa Airport is not perfect. While very few of you had solely negative things to say about the airport, you admitted some improvements could be made.
Yes, love, but... renovation has imperiled some key details. Hard to express in a tweet. Disney comparisons are apt. Original layout of the same time, and I’m worried some is lost.— cb fellerhoff (@libertycash) April 2, 2019
Some worried the parking would be more difficult as the airport’s renovations come to a close. Others said the airport was great for its size but could offer more destinations. Some simply expressed a desire for the airport to return to its “glory days” of its 1971 opening.
But even those responses were hedged by comments like, “The ease of getting around is unparalleled,” and “It’s such a well-designed airport.”
Maybe the biggest reason why we love Tampa airport is the irony of it all. An airport is not a thing you’re supposed to love, but rather something you’re supposed to tolerate. Yet we willingly choose to take our kids there on the weekends, we spend our days off from school in its terminals, we ride its monorail with a twinkle of excitement in our eyes, knowing we’ll be happy to come back.