Tampa airport eyes tentative return to international flights

One carrier flew to the Bahamas on Thursday. Others hint they could resume Tampa flights next month.
Lufthansa's first flight from Frankfurt, Germany passes under a water canon as it taxies to the gate at Tampa International Airport on Sept. 25, 2015.
Lufthansa's first flight from Frankfurt, Germany passes under a water canon as it taxies to the gate at Tampa International Airport on Sept. 25, 2015. [ BORCHUCK, JAMES | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Sept. 3, 2020|Updated Sept. 4, 2020

At a virtual board meeting on Thursday, a Tampa International Airport executive showed off a slide that might have caught frequent travelers by surprise.

The slide listed more than a dozen international flights from Tampa to cities such as London, Zurich, Frankfurt, Havana and Toronto — some resuming as soon as Oct. 1.

Considering most international travel right now is a government-mandated no-go due to the coronavirus pandemic, the timetable sounds ambitious, if not impossible. But it came from data provided to the airport by air carriers, who are eager to resume service in Florida, said Chris Minner, the airport’s executive vice president of communications.

“By the end of the year — actually, October, for example — you’d be able to fly to Frankfurt on Lufthansa again,” Minner told Hillsborough County Aviation Authority board members. “All of this, obviously, is subject to the continuing dynamics of COVID, and what governments are doing with their restrictions.”

It’s not the first time international carriers have offered potential restart dates for service in and out of Tampa, Minner, said. As long as travel restrictions remain in place, they’ll continue to be pushed back.

Still, the resumption of international flights is “the No. 1 question that we continue to get,” Minner said.

Tampa International Airport passenger traffic has plummeted during the pandemic, with just 594,000 passengers in July — a 68 percent year-over-year drop.

But that figure actually included 97 international travelers who flew to Nassau, Bahamas on Silver Airways. After stopping in August, those flights resumed on Thursday, and will continue twice weekly, said airport spokeswoman Emily Nipps.

“There obviously is a lot of pent-up demand,” Minner said.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection staff is not screening passengers in Tampa due to the lack of international flights — Nipps said the Nassau travelers were screened in the Bahamas — which would complicate any travel between nations.

The idea that the world is ready for international air travel may be wishful thinking, said Diane Ross, owner of Kingsbridge Travel in Tampa.

“Am I optimistic that they’ll actually open next month? No, I’m not,” Ross said. “I wish I could tell you yes. I wish I had a crystal ball. I will tell you that I personally am not booking travel for people until the second quarter of next year.”

Ross said she and her husband are waiting for a COVID-19 vaccine before they travel abroad again.

“I’m chomping at the bit,” she said. “But I want to be safe.”

International air travel

At Thursday’s Hillsborough County Aviation Authority, Tampa International Airport officials listed the following possible return dates for international carriers. All dates are subject to change:

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Air Canada: Toronto, Oct. 1; Montreal, Oct. 25; Halifax and Ottawa, Dec. 17

British Airways: London, Oct. 25

Cayman Airways: Grand Cayman, Nov. 1

Copa: Panama City, Nov. 21

Edelweiss: Zurich, Oct. 1

Lufthansa: Frankfurt, Oct. 25

Southwest: Havana, Oct. 8

Swoop Air: Toronto, Dec. 13

WestJet: Toronto, Oct. 5; St. John, March 7

Clarification: Tampa International Airport has U.S. Customs and Border Protection staff on site, but they are not screening international passengers due to a lack of international flights. An earlier version of this story was unclear.