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What's next for Tampa International Airport and CEO Joe Lopano?

CEO Joe Lopano speaks during an unveiling of the plans for the automated people mover on Thursday March 24, 2016, at Tampa International Airport. 

The train cars on the 1.4 mile people mover will each feature a different bird. 

MONICA HERNDON   |   Times
CEO Joe Lopano speaks during an unveiling of the plans for the automated people mover on Thursday March 24, 2016, at Tampa International Airport. The train cars on the 1.4 mile people mover will each feature a different bird. MONICA HERNDON | Times
Published Jul. 30, 2016

TAMPA — Joe Lopano has checked off nearly every item on his to-do list.

Since taking over as chief executive of the Tampa International Airport in 2011, he and his team have landed more than a dozen new flights, including a handful of high-profile international routes to Frankfurt, Panama City and most recently to Havana, Cuba. Lopano has also spearheaded the single largest renovation — a $1 billion overhaul — at the airport since the terminal was built in 1971.

The question now is what's next, for the Tampa airport and for Lopano?

"We're very happy with where we are right now," Lopano said during a phone interview this week, soon after he and his team announced a new nonstop route to San Francisco on United Airlines that will begin in February. "We're taking a breath now and re-evaluating our international plan. In the meantime, we're making sure our airline partners are profitable and happy with the market."

Previous coverage: Tampa International Airport lands nonstop flight to San Francisco

It's not uncommon for airport directors to look for new opportunities after just a few years, those in the industry say. And after a successful 5-year stint in Tampa, could Lopano be looking for his next project sooner rather than later? He brushed off a question about his future with the airport in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times.

"I didn't come here for a paycheck. I wanted to experience positive change," said Lopano, who noted that he's up for a review with his bosses on the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority soon. He accepted a $500,000 bonus in 2013 contingent on him staying with the airport until 2018. Lopano makes $347,287 a year.

"I'm encouraged by what I see in the city and the growth the region is experiencing thanks to a winning team that works together," said Lopano, 61.

He was hired by Steve Burton, the authority chairman in 2011 to replace former executive director Louis Miller, who resigned the year before. Burton, who died in 2013, was instrumental in developing the vision of the master plan Lopano is executing.

He came with a background in marketing and sales from spending 14 years at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport and before that 10 years with Continental Airlines.

"A lot of people thought we couldn't do the things we've done," Lopano said about his early years as CEO. "People said we shouldn't be chasing a lot of these flights because it's very expensive and they were privy to Orlando."

Lopano got to work early on with the aviation authority board to create an airline incentive program in an effort to be more competitive. Past leadership had "walked way" from this idea, he said. It did get Lopano some unwanted media attention for wining and dining airline executives.

But it ultimately helped him achieve a number of firsts. The first nonstop flights between Tampa and Cuba in a half-century started in 2011 with a charter service. Tampa's first nonstop flight to continental Europe in 15 years came with the new service to Zurich, Switzerland on Edelweiss Air in 2012. Copa Airlines' service to Panama City, which began in 2013, was Tampa Bay's first nonstop flight to a major Latin American hub. A flight to Frankfurt on Lufthansa in 2015 connected Tampa Bay to one of the largest international airports in the world. Tampa will become one of the first cities in the U.S. to offer direct commercial service to Cuba soon on Southwest Airlines.

Previous coverage: DOT says Southwest Airlines will connect Tampa to Havana daily

"Joe was the right guy at the right time," said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who sits on the aviation authority board. "He brought new enthusiasm and energy to get us to the next level. I think he's got to keep doing more of the same to keep Tampa on the global stage."

Tampa is known as a progressive airport that's "hitting the mark on an aggressive expansion," said Ken Qualls, CEO of Flight Management Solutions in Boca Raton.

"Time will tell for what's next for that airport," Qualls said. "The fact that Tampa isn't a hub for any major airline has probably helped them in the long run" because no airliner saw a competitor with a stronghold there.

"It's opened everyone's eyes to Tampa and pushed that airport into the big leagues," Qualls said.

Lopano currently oversees the $1 billion redevelopment project of the airport, which is bringing a slew of new restaurants and retailers to all terminals, including a mix of local names like GoodyGoody and Ducky's to national chains like the recently opened P.F. Chang's and Hard Rock Cafe. A people mover shuttle will connect the main terminal to a brand new rental car facility. Construction is expected to be completed by the end of next year.

Previous coverage: Here's an updated look inside the $1 billion construction project at Tampa International Airport

"Joe has positioned the airport as a major regional asset and the gateway to all of Western Florida," said Rick Homans, CEO of the Tampa Bay Partnership, who formerly led the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp. for nearly four years. "Joe has always been a big advocate for a regional transportation system. I think he could tie the airport and other major business destinations by extending the monorail system the airport is building now and making it some kind of bigger metro system."

The airport's growth also plays a key role in the development of big real estate projects, like Strategic Property Partners' $2 billion overhaul of downtown Tampa, said Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, who is an owner of SPP with Cascade Investment.

"The airport is one of the major assets we have here in Tampa Bay and is great for overall economic development in the area," Vinik said. "It aids in making employers want to be here, which is a major mission of SPP to bring high-paying jobs to this community. It's also great because it brings more visitors to our part of town."

And the quest for more flights isn't on hold. Lopano said the airport has hired a consultant to come up with a new list of viable destinations that could be popular and profitable for airliners. Some of those destinations could include Mexico, Colombia and Brazil. But local tourism boosters are hopeful for more far-reaching destinations.

"China and Asia will become important for us in the future, but not tomorrow," said Santiago Corrada, CEO and president of Visit Tampa Bay, Hillsborough County's tourism agency.

Tampa is one stop away from most domestic cities, but nonstop service to Salt Lake City and Portland, Ore., "would be great to have too," he added.

"I think the airport is in very good shape," said Miller, the former Tampa director who more recently retired as general manager of the Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport. "I know very little (of Lopano) but there are many fantastic opportunities for the airport to grow. They seem to be going in the right direction, even though it's much more competitive with fewer airlines out there because of downsizing and mergers."

"Right now we're looking to build over the next five years," Lopano said about the airport. "I'm lucky to work with a board and a team that believes in this vision."

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: Rick Homans is CEO of the Tampa Bay Partnership. His name was initially misspelled.

Reach Justine Griffin at jgriffin at tampabay.com. Follow @SunBizGriffin.