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  1. Business

For Tampa International Airport, one flight leads to another, to another ... (w/video)

There are the Pinellas tourism agency Visit St. Pete/Clearwater's new ads to run in Germany to promote the new Lufthansa Tampa-to-Frankfurt nonstop flight that will start in 2015.

2. Von asphaltschwarz und regengrau zu sonnengelb und meeresblau = ÒFrom asphalt black and rainy grey to sunshine yellow and ocean blue"
First line of text in the bubble on both: Fly Lufthansa Airlines direct from Frankfurt to Tampa. [Visit St. Pete/Clearwater]

TAMPA — Chris Minner had just started work at Tampa International Airport in 2011 when the new vice president of marketing said hello to an old friend — and top executive — at Lufthansa.

"It's great to see you again," the airline executive told Minner, "but we're not flying to Tampa."

Then came Thursday: officials from both sides of the bay gathered at the airport to fete TIA's latest international carrier, Lufthansa, which will start flights to Frankfurt in 2015.

The German airline was one of TIA's most coveted carriers. But Lufthansa would probably have never have come to Tampa Bay at all had the airport not already attracted two new international carriers and new nonstop flights to Latin America and continental Europe since that first rejection in 2011.

That's because at TIA, success begets success.

• • •

The airport's recent victories adding new nonstop routes changed how carriers view it as a business partner and the bay area as a market for business and leisure travelers.

It wasn't always that way. In 1995, British Airways started flying from Tampa to London. That was one of the airport's last international success stories for a long time. TIA's international air service deteriorated from there, and in 2003, the airport lost its flights to Germany — to Orlando.

When Joe Lopano was hired to run TIA in 2010, the CEO's mandate was to restore international nonstops.

Back in those days, Minner said, being rejected "was the very first conversation we had" with carriers.

Then in 2011, TIA started flying to Cuba again after a half century.

In 2012, eight months after Cuba flights resumed, Edelweiss Air started nonstop service to Zurich, Switzerland.

In 2013, a year after that, Copa Airlines started flying nonstop to Panama City, Panama.

Six months after that, Alaska Airlines started nonstop service to Seattle this past summer.

And 10 months from now, nonstops to Germany will return to Tampa after 12 years.

Each success, Minner said, accelerated the next success.

"Now the first conversation becomes 'Why is Copa so successful in Tampa?' " he said. "Or 'I just heard you got nonstop flights to Seattle.'

"And I guarantee you the next conversation we'll have with airlines will start with 'Congratulations on getting Lufthansa.' "

• • •

When Lopano's new management team at TIA started chasing international flights in 2010, it was all it could do to stick its foot in the door before airlines slammed it shut.

"The key for us, whether it's Lufthansa or Copa, is the first thing you need to do is get on their radar," Minner said.

Lopano's team used analytics to build a better business case than airlines had heard before: the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Sarasota market has an effective buying income of $96 billion, more than any other Florida metro market, according to TIA. The bay area also has 3.5 million people within a one-hour drive of the airport.

After Copa and Edelweiss, the airport could make an even better business case to airlines like Lufthansa based on actual passenger numbers from the new international flights.

The Edelweiss numbers are especially relevant to Lufthansa, which owns the Swiss carrier.

In September, Edelweiss said that after 28 months it served more than 80,000 passengers on the twice-a-week flights to Tampa that started in 2012. The airline also said that its planes were 80 percent full in summer 2014. Next summer, it plans to add a third weekly flight.

Minner said the German airline was able to sift through its Swiss subsidiary's passenger numbers to more closely examine the bay area market and see who was buying those tickets.

"Lufthansa was able to look at not just the numbers across the board," Minner said, "but they can look at the details and see that Edelweiss' business class was full."

In fact, Germany has even more potential for business travel in Tampa Bay then Switzerland does. Germany, according to a 2011 Tampa Bay Partnership report, has more than twice the number of companies here (66) than Switzerland (32).

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said the new flights should spark more German investment in the bay area, and that could lead to new travelers that would grow Lufthansa's market. The mayor recalled what German firms told him during a 2013 trade mission there.

"To a company, they said to us we would like to be in Tampa, we would like to be in Florida," Buckhorn said, "but the only thing that you're lacking is direct flights from Germany to Tampa."

• • •

Incentives also helped TIA attract new international carriers like Copa, Edelweiss and now Lufthansa.

The Lufthansa package is the biggest yet: more than $1.5 million in total incentives to lure the German airline to Tampa Bay.

TIA will pay more than $1 million in cash, marketing assistance and waived airport fees over the next two years. The Pinellas tourism agency, Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, committed to spending $500,000 to market the route overseas. Visit Tampa Bay, the Hillsborough tourism agency, pledged $100,000 to promote it.

Nonstop international flights are considered a top economic development priority by bay area leaders. TIA said that every new daily nonstop route to a European city generates $154 million in annual economic impact for the region.

Attracting tourists is part of that economic impact, and tourists from overseas stay longer and spend more.

The bay area has been cultivating German tourism for three decades. Europe is the third-largest feeder market for the Pinellas beaches, behind the U.S. Midwest and the Northeast.

"This product resonates with the German market," said David Downing, the interim CEO of Pinellas' tourism agency. "They've been coming here for years."

Pinellas even has German ads ready to go: Vom Schwarzwald zum Meer so blau, LH macht's moglich.

Translation: "From the Black Forest to the ocean so blue, (Lufthansa) makes it possible."

There were 690,000 European visitors to the beaches from January to August of this year, according to the Pinellas tourism agency. That's an increase of 6 percent, or 36,000 more tourists than the same time period last year.

Those kinds of numbers will only improve with 11-hour flights several times a week to and from Frankfurt, Downing said, which will reduce transit time for German tourists who will no longer need a second connection to reach the beaches.

"When we make it easy for one of our largest feeder markets to get here," Downing said, "that changes the game."

• • •

New international routes aren't guaranteed to stick around, though. Tampa has learned that the hard way. Airlines have to sell seats and show a profit to stay in Tampa Bay.

But there's another way to make Lufthansa's Frankfurt route the next success story at TIA: air cargo.

"We haven't been able to prove ourselves as a cargo hub," Lopano said, because TIA hasn't had enough planes flying overseas routes to do so.

Lufthansa could change that. The new nonstop will start flying five days a week on Sept. 25, 2015, fall to four flights a week over the winter, then go back to five flights a week in summer 2016.

The route will use Airbus A340-300s that are slightly bigger than the Edelweiss' A330-300s that will be flying two to three times a week next year to Switzerland.

The new Lufthansa route also connects TIA to Frankfurt Airport, which is the busiest cargo airport in Europe. It moved 2 million metric tons of cargo last year.

So the new Lufthansa flights would allow businesses on both sides of the Atlantic to fly more cargo, more frequently and much faster between the bay area and Europe.

"Everybody focuses on the passengers and the business class and so on," Lopano said. "But down below the belly is some real money."

Contact Jamal Thalji at thalji@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3404. Follow @jthalji.

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