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Nonstop flights to San Francisco and Salt Lake City are on Tampa airport's wish list

Tampa International Airport officials would like a nonstop flight to San Francisco. United is offering a nonstop flight to San Francisco from Tampa on Dec. 18, but it’s on that day only — to quickly reposition a plane between the two cities.
Tampa International Airport officials would like a nonstop flight to San Francisco. United is offering a nonstop flight to San Francisco from Tampa on Dec. 18, but it’s on that day only — to quickly reposition a plane between the two cities.
Published Oct. 23, 2015

I woke up Thursday morning to find some interesting chatter on Twitter about a nonstop United Airlines flight from Tampa International to San Francisco International Airport.

Cody Gonzalez (@Gonzo1033 on Twitter) from Tampa tweeted at the airport: "Hey @FlyTPA, your destination map (http://tpa.fltmaps.com/en) is showing SFO non-stop … long awaited announcement coming soon? ;)"

But there isn't nonstop service from Tampa to San Francisco, a major travel and business destination that Tampa airport officials covet.

A few swipes on my phone led me to an interactive map on the Tampa airport's website that made it seem legitimate. On the map was a direct line spanning coast to coast, connecting Tampa to San Francisco on Dec. 18.

There I also discovered a nonstop flight to Salt Lake City — another destination high on Tampa's priority list — on Delta on Nov. 29.

I couldn't dial the phone number for Janet Zink, the Tampa airport's spokeswoman, fast enough. San Francisco and Salt Lake may be the last frontier in terms of domestic destinations for airport CEO Joe Lopano, who during his four-year term has succeeded in bringing numerous new flights to the region.

It took an entire day to solve the mystery: The nonstop to San Francisco is a plane that will carry the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from St. Louis after a road game there on Dec. 17. The plane is needed the next day in San Francisco so it will fly there carrying passengers, according to Zink. The reason for the nonstop to Salt Lake remained unknown at the end of the day.

But the excitement over a San Francisco nonstop was a reminder of what a great landing that would be for the Tampa Bay area. It would build on an increasingly impressive list of destinations that you can get to nonstop from Tampa.

You can climb aboard the new Lufthansa flight and wake up 11 hours later in Frankfurt, Germany. In half a day you can fly to Seattle, thanks to a direct flight from Alaska Airlines that began last year.

Frontier Airlines brought an additional 220,000 passengers to Tampa this year through new flights to and from Cleveland, Chicago, Philadelphia and added service to Denver. Edelweiss began service to Zurich in 2012. The next year Copa Airlines added direct flights to Panama City.

Passenger traffic has been on an upward trajectory for five years in a row, with more than 18.5 million travelers coming through Tampa during this fiscal year.

A nonstop route to San Francisco would have a tremendous impact for business and leisure travel in Tampa Bay. How great would it be to have nonstop service to the global tech capital? For Tampa's budding start-up community, entrepreneurs would have a direct line to investors and connections to some of the fastest-growing companies in the world. It also sure would make Tampa look more attractive to corporate headquarters considering a move here.

The Tampa-to-San Francisco route is one of the most under-served routes in the country, airport officials have said in the past, citing data that nearly 200 people pass through Tampa's terminals daily en route to the Golden Gate city.

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A nonstop flight to Salt Lake City could have helped me last week, when I booked a flight out of Orlando for January because Tampa's options were too expensive and had too many layovers.

Regarding the San Francisco flight, a United Airlines spokeswoman said the map's information was wrong, even though I could book a coach seat on the Dec. 18 flight on United.com for $135 (though I would have to catch a connecting flight on the way back).

"Our service between the two cities would connect at either our Denver or Houston hubs," said Mary Clark, an United Airlines spokeswoman.

As for Salt Lake City, you can book a coach seat on the nonstop flight on Delta.com from Tampa for $661 per person for Nov. 29 only. There are no other dates available that don't include one or two connections. Delta officials did not respond to requests for comment by the end of the day Thursday.

"It's not uncommon for airlines to do this every so often, usually during peak travel times like around the holidays, instead of gumming up their connecting hubs," said Mike Boyd, an airline consultant in Colorado with Boyd Group International.

It could also be a dormant route left over from a past airline merger, like a defunct Continental route, said Ken Qualls, CEO of Flight Management Solutions in Boca Raton.

"Both flights are around peak travel times, so maybe this is an experimental schedule to see if it's worth opening up an everyday route," Qualls said.

Airport officials are still riding high from the inaugural Lufthansa flight last month, which it took nearly a decade to get.

San Francisco and Salt Lake City might not be an option yet, but they are natural next steps for Lopano's quest to add more nonstop flights.

Said Zink: "San Francisco and Salt Lake City are markets we're aggressively pursuing but we don't have any regularly scheduled nonstop service to announce to either of those destinations. When we do get that service, we won't be shy about telling everyone. We'll probably plan a big party and have some interesting hats."

Contact Justine Griffin at jgriffin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin

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