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Travelers will miss old Tampa airport, but look forward to changes

TAMPA — Officials at Tampa International Airport say $953 million in renovations will bring more flights and local flavor to the bustling space.

It's the first major renovation at TIA since it opened in 1971, and officials say the changes will make the airport easier to navigate.

TIA is a source of local pride. The airport consistently ranks near the top of polls and rankings of the nation's best airports.

Which is why some travelers are apprehensive about the changes, including new restaurants, a new car rental facility and a new people mover — not to mention months of construction.

"I definitely thought I was going to get lost," 38-year-old Misty Waters said on a recent day of traveling.

Passengers wonder: Will the new airport resemble the old TIA's charms and easiness? Is it a necessary risk to fix something that doesn't seem all that broken? And how much of a hassle will it be during construction?

"We do want people to be aware that these changes are coming and to know that they could see new construction walls and new construction related changes when they come," airport spokesman Danny Valentine said. "But we're doing everything in our power to minimize impact to passengers."

Passengers on a recent afternoon were happy to express their love for the airport. John Evans, 66, always buys souvenirs for his family from the airport before he flies home. Katie Driscoll, 26, stops by Cigar City when she has the time. And Karen Knox, 50, has fond memories of riding the shuttles with her daughter.

But there are some headaches. Construction billboards and full parking lots irritated some travelers.

Donna Cottone, 55, who had just flown in from California, found it difficult to navigate through the construction. She waited for her sister in the main terminal but had no idea where to find her. "I had to ask one of the guys who works here where to go," she said. "But I still don't know if I'm in the right place."

Many complained the parking lot was confusing.

Eddie Velazquez, 58, spent the morning waiting for his father to arrive on a plane from Cuba. He found the airport's setup leading to the parking garage so infuriating that he said he preferred the notoriously chaotic Miami airport to Tampa.

Others complained that the parking was full — though the full lots had nothing to do with the expansion project.

"The only hassle was trying to find a place in the parking lot," 69-year-old Jean Cota said. "If anybody wants to find a parking space, I'm going to have to leave."

Parking conditions will improve when the expansion is complete in 2017, Valentine said, and the airport adds 2,400 new parking spots to the long-term parking garage.

Many passengers saw the positives in the construction. They talked of a better future rather than focusing on the clunky, construction-filled present.

"The expansion is only going to make things better," John Evans said.

The airport monitors customer satisfaction through an online survey offered on the airport's Wi-Fi. Valentine said less than 3 percent of those surveyed said they were moderately or heavily impacted by construction.

Despite one canceled flight to Chicago and another possible cancellation looming, Andy Zontos, 44, and his wife and son were in good spirits. They sat laughing and talking in the main terminal. They compared TIA favorably to Chicago's airports.

Their final take?

"This is a very nice airport," Zontos said.