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Trigaux: Tampa International Airport's pricey overhaul is about keeping up with peers

A worker walks through the construction site for a part of the Tampa International Airport expansion. The airport is keeping up with other airports across the nation — including an aggressive expansion plan at Orlando International Airport — with its expansion plans. EVE EDELHEIT   I   Times
A worker walks through the construction site for a part of the Tampa International Airport expansion. The airport is keeping up with other airports across the nation — including an aggressive expansion plan at Orlando International Airport — with its expansion plans. EVE EDELHEIT I Times
Published Sep. 8, 2015

With so much local attention focused on the massive near-$1 billion expansion and redevelopment of Tampa International Airport, remember this: If you stand still in this competitive industry, you fall behind.

In one recent ranking of the top U.S. airports, not one Florida facility made the list.

Aggressive airport investments are under way across the country. Look no farther than down I-4, where larger Orlando International is pursuing its own $1.1 billion expansion. Parts of the plans may sound familiar.

Orlando construction crews and heavy-equipment operators are busy building a train depot and six-story parking garage, as well as extending a people-mover system that will connect to the main terminal a mile to the north.

"It's a lot of explosive growth," Davin Ruohomaki, Orlando International's senior director of planning, engineering and construction, told the Orlando Sentinel in a Sunday story.

In addition to multiple airside terminal upgrades, the Orlando airport will also connect with the All Aboard Florida train that will run from the airport to Miami. And the garage, people mover and road and other improvements will accommodate a planned $1.8 billion southern terminal that primarily would handle international travelers, the airport's fastest-growing segment of passenger traffic.

Airports expected to grow the fastest are not even in Florida. Based on percentage growth, Charlotte, N.C., is expected to expand the most, by 32.5 percent, thanks to the integration of US Airways into American Airlines later this year. After Charlotte, Los Angeles International, Chicago's O'Hare International and Midway International airports, and Las Vegas-based McCarran International will grow the fastest, according to a recent analysis by Boyd Group International at an aviation summit conference.

At that same event, China's Hainan Airlines vice president Wei Hou said that U.S. airports are "not ready" for the influx of Chinese tourists — a reference presumably to both the anticipated volume of visitors and the services so many first-time visitors to the United States may require.

A recent ranking by Hopper.com, a flight prediction app, picked the top 10 airports in the United States, with Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport taking the No. 1 slot in large part because of its unusually helpful website that updates security times and available parking spaces. Airports ranking just behind it are Denver International, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta, Seattle-Tacoma International (where traffic is up 13 percent so far in 2015) and JFK in New York.

No Florida airport cracked the list.

Folks who travel a lot can appreciate how airports are trying to transform themselves into far more than a destination or departure facility. Like TIA, they are all becoming broader symbols of the vibrancy of the markets they serve.

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Contact Robert Trigaux at rtrigaux@tampabay.com.