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As Tampa’s airport grows, employees say no two days are alike

Take a peek behind the scenes at Tampa International Airport
 
Kyle McFadden, systems recovery engineer with the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority, monitors Tampa International Airport’s baggage conveyor system from the belly of the Main Terminal on Tuesday, March 5, 2024, in Tampa.
Kyle McFadden, systems recovery engineer with the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority, monitors Tampa International Airport’s baggage conveyor system from the belly of the Main Terminal on Tuesday, March 5, 2024, in Tampa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published March 22|Updated March 22

Past the ticket counter and behind Tampa International Airport’s bright, clean facade, there is a dim, cavernous atrium where luggage moves over workers’ heads on a web of conveyor belts.

In a control room, a large map locates spots where movement has stopped and luggage is jammed. Hillsborough County Aviation Authority employees climb to the spots to restore the flow of bags, which are then sorted and stacked onto carts that zip down the wide concrete tunnel, headed toward their respective airlines.

Walking through here is like being inside a living thing, the bones and veins of the region’s largest transport hub on full display. With more than 650 employees, the aviation authority is responsible for keeping Tampa International running smoothly and efficiently.

Norberto Bonilla, left, and Brett Conners, with the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority, sorts baggage between flight arrivals from the belly of the Main Terminal at Tampa International Airport on Tuesday, March 5, 2024, in Tampa.
Norberto Bonilla, left, and Brett Conners, with the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority, sorts baggage between flight arrivals from the belly of the Main Terminal at Tampa International Airport on Tuesday, March 5, 2024, in Tampa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

The last few years have marked significant growth for Tampa International and the authority, which also runs the county’s smaller, publicly owned airports. The authority hired 50 additional employees, while at Tampa International, a record number of passengers — 25 million in 2023 — can see a new rental car center, more restaurants, and soon, a new terminal.

Growth in the airport requires more work to keep everything proceeding smoothly. Few people realize that running an airport is like running an entire town, with its own accredited police force, businesses and operations team.

“It’s been a lot to take in,” said Darryl Somrah, the authority’s logistics coordinator in building maintenance, who has worked there for 15 years. “Plumbing quadrupled, everything quadrupled — square footage, the maintenance of the tiles, the ceiling, everything.”

Maintenance employees make up a third of the authority’s workforce, handling everything from event setup, building maintenance, landscaping and any other possible thing that benefits the airport’s performance or its “public image.” Somrah said the maintenance team tries to accommodate all aspects of the Authority’s needs — meaning no two days are the same. They get involved if there is an issue with a plane, if the Transportation Security Agency needs more stanchions for a crowd or if a board meeting is planned.

Darryl Somrah, with the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority, discusses work culture on Tuesday, March 5, 2024, at Tampa International Airport in Tampa.
Darryl Somrah, with the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority, discusses work culture on Tuesday, March 5, 2024, at Tampa International Airport in Tampa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

“It’s a lot of different pieces that have this machine well-oiled and well-running,” Somrah said.

But authority employees say they’re motivated by the support and transparency given at all levels.

“I love the culture here,” said Noelle Cudzilo, an airfield inspector. Her job is to clear the runways of debris and wildlife and ensure the field is up to the standards of the Federal Aviation Administration. “It’s a very team-oriented, family-oriented place to work. We’re also very goal-driven, too.”

Melissa Solberg, senior manager of the office of innovation, said authority leadership invests in the work environment with the goal of keeping employees engaged, which ultimately benefits the passenger experience. In recent years, that has included investing in the SkyCenter One, a new office building that includes a fitness center, cafe and easy access to the Tampa airport’s facilities.

Bobby Cox, with the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority, transports bags to baggage claims from the belly of the Main Terminal at Tampa International Airport on Tuesday, March 5, 2024, in Tampa.
Bobby Cox, with the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority, transports bags to baggage claims from the belly of the Main Terminal at Tampa International Airport on Tuesday, March 5, 2024, in Tampa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

“At the highest level, we look at things that are new or different that add value to the organization,” Solberg said. “I think collectively, when you think about who we are as an airport to our community, it’s equally important to do the very best that we can for our employees.”

Employees are kept apprised of the airport’s long-term expansion plans, invited to regular town hall meetings and given the chance to ask questions. Somrah said there are workplace events — barbecues, family days, golf outings, events with local sports teams — that facilitate a sense of camaraderie among Authority employees. Hard work never goes unappreciated, he said.

“You can be walking through this terminal and see anybody that works in the airport, and you can ask them for a hand, and they will say, ‘Yes,’” he said. “People care.”

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Hillsborough County Aviation Authority

Location: Tampa

Employees: 670

Website: http://www.tampaairport.com

Employee comments: “Every day brings new challenges which motivate me. Everyone works together as a team no matter what department you belong. I’m particularly proud of the work I do, the organization I work for, and the success we achieve together. We are a close-knit community.”

“I am able to affect change and feel like a contributor to the Authority’s success.”

“I am valued for my contributions and opinions; this organization stands by its beliefs and is honest about the challenges.”

“I can make an impact and be a catalyst for positive change.”