TAMPA — If you were ever at Tampa International Airport last year and it seemed like the entire population of the state of New York was passing through, well, there was a reason.
That's because in 2017 the airport saw a record 19.6 million passengers — a number close to the entire population of the state of New York.
Airport officials on Thursday welcomed the new record, which beats the airport's previous best year in 2007, before and at the very start of the Great Recession.
That kind of growth, they said, reinforces the need for a $2.3 billion expansion program now nearing the end of its first stage.
"So far, there's no indication that this growth is slowing down anytime soon," Hillsborough County Aviation Authority chairman Robert Watkins said. "This record is significant and underscores the importance of Tampa International Airport's master planned projects and the need to build now and built smart."
Next month, the airport expects to open a new car rental center served by a new 1.5-mile SkyConnect train to the main terminal. By then as well, 69 new shops, restaurants and services will have opened inside a renovated main terminal. By 2023, the airport expects to have added an 8-story office building, two hotels, a gas station and eventually more airside gates.
"Tampa International Airport is a jewel, an economic linchpin, for this region, and it's critical that we keep it up to date and support this kind of program for the next 20 to 30 years," Watkins said.
In the years after 2007, when traffic totaled 19.1 million passengers, the airport lost 3 million passengers, airport CEO Joe Lopano said.
"We were in the bottom of a really deep recession," he said. "We put together a strategy ... to market aggressively and to market smart, to try to dig out of the hole."
That meant putting money into marketing and going on sales calls to airlines like Lufthansa in Germany and Copa in Panama.
"Next thing we know, we have a flight to Zurich. We have a flight to Panama. We have a flight Havana," he said. "These things work, and the strategy has really paid off."
Although Hurricane Irma rained out nearly three days' worth of flights, but spring break brought record numbers for March and April, and the year ended with the airport's best month of the year. December saw 11.1 percent more passengers than in the same month the year before.
Lopano said it was hard to say whether the airport would have hit the 20 million mark if not for the hurricane.
"It would have been a lot closer," he said.
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During 2017, the airport expanded its reach with service to four new destinations: San Francisco (United); Salt Lake City (Delta); Colorado Springs (Frontier); and Reykjavík, Iceland (Icelandair). Meanwhile, Frontier added flights to another 10 existing destinations, while Copa Airlines said it would increase flights to Panama City this coming summer.
The 2017 numbers also came out the same week the airport celebrated the launch of nonstop Southwest Airlines flights to San Diego. The flights, which began Monday, are seen as a boost to business travelers, particularly those in the defense, aerospace and medical industries, who are expected to fill a lot of those seats.
In late 2016, airport officials targeted three domestic markets for new flights — San Diego, Salt Lake City and Portland, Ore., which the airport is still working on. Internationally, the airport's prospect list includes Mexico City, Lima, Bogota, Amsterdam, Manchester and Dublin.
Meanwhile, across the bay St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport saw more than 2 million passengers for the first time ever in 2017. The smaller airport recorded its fifth straight year of double-digit passenger growth.
Contact Richard Danielson at email@example.com or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times
TIA's busiest year
Total passengers: 19,624,284
Busiest day: Dec. 30, with 77,800 passengers
Most airplane operations: Dec. 29, with 554 commercial flights
Busiest day for luggage: March 18, with 28,781 pieces of outbound luggage
Busiest day for concessions: Dec. 23, with 35,676 customers
Busiest day for parking: Nov. 26, with 11,987 transactions (many of them free stays of an hour or less)