Tampa airport narrowly approves raise, annual salary bumps for CEO Joe Lopano

Two board members, including Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, voted against the pay increase.
Tampa International Airport CEO Joe Lopano, center, announced the implementation of a plan for on-site COVID-19 tests at the airport on Sept. 29, 2020.
Tampa International Airport CEO Joe Lopano, center, announced the implementation of a plan for on-site COVID-19 tests at the airport on Sept. 29, 2020. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]
Published Feb. 4, 2021

After one of the roughest years in commercial aviation history, Tampa International Airport CEO Joe Lopano is getting a raise.

The Hillsborough County Aviation Authority board on Thursday approved the terms of Lopano’s new five-year deal, which includes a 7 percent raise, followed by at least a 5 percent annual bump until 2025. The vote allows the board to draw up an official contract that would go into effect in April.

But the vote wasn’t unanimous.

Despite Lopano’s perfect performance review last fall, two board members, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor and Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White, voted against the raise given the financial challenges faced by Tampa International Airport and the aviation industry as a whole during the coronavirus pandemic.

Lopano’s annual salary would start at $544,448.74, up from nearly $509,000 this past year, and from $299,000 when he started in 2010. Five percent annual increases would push it to more than $661,000 at the time the contract expires in 2025.

“I think the position that we’re in with the aviation industry, especially with the COVID pandemic, sort of highlights why I struggle with that sort of a provision being in a contract,” White said.

Castor offered effusive praise for Lopano’s performance, telling him she “couldn’t be more appreciative of your leadership.” But she also found the scale of the raise tough to swallow.

“I, too, feel in this current financial state that we’re in that it would be difficult to vote yes on a pay increase,” Castor said. “That is certainly no reflection on you. In better financial times for this organization, there would be zero hesitation.”

Board members Garry Harrod, Chip Diehl and Robert Watkins voted yes on the raise, with each saying the airport would be in a much tougher position without Lopano at the helm.

“The respect that he has nationally and among the peers in his industry, he could leave tomorrow,” Diehl said. “It would be like a star basketball player leaving their team. We want to keep him. Because we’re strong today, the COVID recovery’s on its way, we’ve got a great future, and it’s because of him and his team that we have. So I’m very, very supportive.”

Before the pandemic shut down the aviation industry last March, Tampa International was on pace for another year of record passenger counts and was deep into planning for a $2 billion expansion. By June, though, the airport voted to push back $906 million worth of construction as the airline industry struggled to claw itself back to life.

In September, airport officials reported a $75 million shortfall for the fiscal year and downsized revenue expectations for 2021 accordingly. Nearly 10.2 million passengers passed through the airport’s gates in 2020, the lowest total since 1993.

Related: Tampa airport planning staff buyouts, 'three to four years' for recovery

Amid all of this, the airport received an $81.2 million relief grant from the Federal Aviation Administration and is poised to receive millions more in the coming months. And it offered employees a buyout program aimed at saving $2.5 million in expenses.

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Such numbers obscure the “good financial shape” the airport is in, Watkins said.

The airport has $180 million in reserves, including $105 million available for unrestricted spending, said Damian Brooke, executive vice president of finance and procurement. That’s up from $80 million — none of it unrestricted — when Lopano took the reins in 2010.

“Other airports that are dealing with the virus, and the problems and the shortfalls, desperately need better leadership.” Harrod said, making it more important than ever for Tampa International to keep Lopano. “We’re so lucky.”

For his part, Lopano said he’s happy he made the decision to come to Tampa from Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, and before that, industry jobs in New York.

“I was accepted in the community, and that made me want to do more for the community,” he said. “It’s a Tampa thing, I think. It wasn’t like that when I was in Dallas, it wasn’t like that in New York. So I appreciate all the nice comments. I just love this airport, I really do.”