Airline shortages strain Tampa International Airport’s recovery

The airport is hosting one of its largest hiring fairs ahead of spring break. Frontier Airlines alone is looking to hire 1,000 flight attendants.
An American kestrel perches on a sign as a Spirit Airlines passenger jet taxis on a runway at Tampa International Airport in Tampa on Jan. 26.
An American kestrel perches on a sign as a Spirit Airlines passenger jet taxis on a runway at Tampa International Airport in Tampa on Jan. 26. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Feb. 3, 2022|Updated Feb. 3, 2022

While Tampa International Airport rebounded quicker than most U.S. airports from the coronavirus pandemic, the road to recovery snagged somewhat in recent months.

Airport officials estimate they won’t reach a “post-recovery period” until at least next year, airport advisor Pete Ricondo told the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority Thursday.

More than 18 million passengers passed through Tampa International last year, according to airport officials, down nearly 20 percent from 2019. The airport was closing the gap on pre-pandemic levels this summer and returned to pre-pandemic records during Thanksgiving break, but the streak ended in December when omicron surged and airline shortages caused hundreds of delays and cancellations into the new year.

Related: Meet the hawk protecting your flight at Tampa International Airport

Now many airlines have braced for more trouble as winter storms could create more cancellations.

They’ll be put to the test as a storm sweeping from Texas to New England is grounding many flights across the nation Thursday. Dallas was hit the hardest with 650 cancellations. Tampa had 40 flight delays and 77 cancellations as of Thursday afternoon, according to tracking website FlightAware.

“Airline labor shortages have forced airline network planning decision makers to pull capacity out of scheduled flying so that they can build resilience into their schedule,” said Christopher Minner, executive vice president of marketing and communications.

Tampa International is hosting one of its largest job fairs on Feb. 15 ahead of the airport’s busiest time of the year — spring break. Frontier Airlines is looking to hire about 1,000 flight attendants and there are 500 more positions for other airlines, shops, restaurants, rental car companies and ground handling services.

But airport officials still expect to see more gains this year, especially in international travel.

Ricondo showed the aviation authority board a chart comparing the performance of Tampa International and U.S. airports on Thursday. Almost all American airports were in-line with one another throughout global crises such as the Vietnam War, Sept. 11, the Great Recession and COVID-19. After each dip, the numbers bounced back higher than before.

Related: What's the future of post-pandemic travel? Tampa International Airport plans to find out.

“The air travel industry and the aviation industry have always recovered from each of these events,” Ricondo said.

Ricondo, who is conducting a study for Tampa International’s 20-year master plan, said he expects the airport to return to normal growth within two years. Nearly 39 million passengers per year could travel through Tampa by 2042, according to forecasts that will be submitted to the Federal Aviation Administration for approval.