TAMPA — It wasn't your average day at Tampa International Airport Friday.
Travelers listened to a German polka band and feasted on free pretzels, which were handed out by women in traditional German Dirndlgewand dresses in front of a miniature German village.
The fanfare surrounding the inaugural Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt to Tampa, which included a water cannon salute from airport fire trucks, cheerleaders and chutes of champagne, signals just how important community leaders think this new direct flight is to the Tampa Bay area.
The Lufthansa Airbus A340-300 airplane arrived on time in Tampa with dozens of fans watching from the rooftops of the airport's parking garages and on the ground floor of the runway. The plane didn't have the Lufthansa logo on it though — instead it said Star Alliance, Lufthansa's partnering airline group.
A handful of Tampa tourism boosters, airport officials and Lufthansa's CEO were on board the roughly 11-hour flight.
Flight attendants mistakenly welcomed passengers to Atlanta for the first time instead of Tampa. But the party went on.
The new flight to and from Frankfurt, which will fly five days a week, is expected to bring in more international tourists and become a pipeline for building an international business community in the region. For locals, it's a new convenient service to major destinations in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
"Florida is the only state where Lufthansa has service in three markets," said Lufthansa CEO Karl Ulrich Garnadt. "We've been very successful all over Florida, and see great potential in Tampa."
The first flight was at 92 percent capacity with a total of 298 available seats.
"Passengers on today's flight alone came from 45 different destinations," said Patrick Harrison, vice president of marketing and communications with Visit Tampa Bay, Hillsborough County's tourism agency.
The return flight to Frankfurt took off Friday evening and was to land Saturday at one of the world's busiest airports. Frankfurt services 108 airlines that fly to 295 cities in 105 countries.
Leigh Landis, who was traveling on Lufthansa to Frankfurt and onward to Copenhagen for business, was thrilled to have the new service.
"It's worth an extra couple hundred bucks just not to connect in JFK," said Landis, who lives in Wesley Chapel. She works for Exeter International, a tour operating company.
This is the first time direct service to Germany has come to Tampa since German-based Condor Airlines stopped offering service to Frankfurt from Tampa in 1991.
Germany is Tampa's third-largest international market, accounting for 11.6 percent of all foreign visitors and Germans tend to spend more during their trips here than other international travelers. It's Visit St. Pete-Clearwater's second largest international market. The Pinellas County tourism arm saw a 15.7 percent increase in the number of European travelers from 2011 to 2014. The new flights are projected to bring 1,500 people a week to Tampa Bay who never before have had easy access to get here.
"We've been a business airline but see that leisure travel is the future. Germans want to come here," Garnadt said. "But Tampa leaders say that there is great interest for business here, too."
Enough interest could lead to daily flights to Frankfurt, he said.
Local tourism boosters have spent 30 years attracting German tourists here and nearly a decade trying to lure Lufthansa. It took $1.5 million in waived airport fees and incentives to finally get them here.
It also took decades for airport officials to develop an international market for the airport. About a decade ago, international travelers accounted for only 2.8 percent of all airport traffic. Today, it's about 11 percent.
After eliminating its Germany service, Condor Airlines stopped offering flights to Latin America from Tampa for good in 2003. International flights rebounded once current airport CEO Joe Lopano came on board in 2010.
Lufthansa's service to Germany is the Tampa airport's third major international carrier to expand its reach to new destinations around the world in recent years. Edelweiss began service to Zurich in 2012. The next year Copa Airlines added direct flights to Panama City, and easy connection to scores of Latin American destinations. British Airways now flies nonstop to London from Tampa.
Contact Justine Griffin at email@example.com or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.