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Spirit Airlines driving growth at Tampa International Airport

In 12 months, the number of passengers at Tampa International Airport has grown by about 1.1 million. Spirit Airlines accounts for 38 percent of those fliers.
A Spirit Airlines plane before getting ready to push back and depart from one of their four gates at the Tampa International Airport on Tuesday. Spirit, a low-cost, Florida-based airline, has increased the number of cities it serves from Tampa 50 percent in two years. And in a recent 12-month period, Spirit's passengers accounted for 38 percent of the airport's total growth in passengers. Spirit is not only raising its profile in Tampa. It is pursuing rapid growth nationwide, with plans to move its corporate headquarters from Miramar to a new $250 million headquarters building in Dania Beach in Broward County.
A Spirit Airlines plane before getting ready to push back and depart from one of their four gates at the Tampa International Airport on Tuesday. Spirit, a low-cost, Florida-based airline, has increased the number of cities it serves from Tampa 50 percent in two years. And in a recent 12-month period, Spirit's passengers accounted for 38 percent of the airport's total growth in passengers. Spirit is not only raising its profile in Tampa. It is pursuing rapid growth nationwide, with plans to move its corporate headquarters from Miramar to a new $250 million headquarters building in Dania Beach in Broward County. [ DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Nov. 22, 2019

TAMPA — Even at Tampa International Airport, no stranger to robust growth, Spirit Airlines stands out.

Spirit, a low-cost, Florida-based airline, has roughly doubled its size in the past five years, with the number of cities it serves from Tampa growing by 50 percent in two years.

By offering a basic, no-frills fare low enough to attract passengers who otherwise wouldn’t think of flying, low-cost carriers like Spirit “create new demand where demand maybe didn’t exist before,” said Chris Minner, Tampa International’s executive vice president of marketing and communications. Last week, for example, Spirit offered a $66 one-way weekday fare for a flight from Tampa to Nashville.

“Rather than just trying to undercut and steal a passenger from another airline, their whole strategy is to convince people to fly that perhaps have not flown before,” he said.

Spirit also focuses on “serving the destinations that people really want to go to," Minner said, including Philadelphia, Boston, New York, Chicago and New Orleans, and "they’re serving the major airports in the markets that are creating the in-bound traffic that supports our tourism and convention business here.”

RELATED: Spirit Airlines adds nonstop routes from Tampa to Philadelphia for the holidays

Spirit’s typical passenger is a leisure traveler, maybe someone visiting family or friends, and that has played to Tampa’s advantage as the city’s reputation has risen.

“As people in other parts of the country are looking at the west coast of Florida as a great place to go visit and vacation, it’s become a natural growth vehicle for Spirit," said Matt Klein, Spirit’s senior vice president and chief commercial officer.

The Spirit Airlines ticket counter at Tampa International Airport.
The Spirit Airlines ticket counter at Tampa International Airport. [ DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times ]

Over the past year, Spirit accounted for about 38 percent of Tampa International Airport’s total growth in passengers, outpacing much larger carriers like Southwest, Delta and American. About 437,000 of the airport’s 1.1 million additional passengers arrived or left in one of Spirit’s canary-yellow Airbus jets.

Earlier this year, Spirit added daily service between Tampa and San Juan, Puerto Rico, plus expanded service to Atlanta and Washington, D.C. This month, it launched new daily nonstop service from Tampa to New York’s LaGuardia Airport, Newark, Indianapolis and Nashville. With those, Spirit flies to 24 destinations from Tampa, with as many as 29 departing flights a day.

While budget airlines are not necessarily known for emphasizing the passenger experience, Spirit said it’s trying to change that.

Part of that has been a multi-year focus on improving on-time performance, which Klein said not only leaves passengers happier, but makes the airline’s network more cost-effective and its employees more proud of where they work.

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“That becomes a very virtuous cycle of success,” he said. Working with the Disney Institute in Orlando, “they helped us come up with a great new training program where we’ve transitioned the company into thinking about the people who fly on our airplanes instead of being customers, they’re guests, and we’re treating them like guests."

Next month, Spirit will also unveil a cabin redesign featuring new seats with thicker padding, ergonomic lumbar support and nearly one inch more of pre-recline space. Middle seats will gain an inch of width.

The airline plans for more growth ahead. Its fleet, currently 140 aircraft, will grow by 53 more jets by the end of 2021.

At Tampa International, Spirit’s 11th-largest airport for flights and seats per day, the airline’s growth has forced airport officials to do some re-arranging to make sure it has the gates it needs.

Over the past few years, the airport has moved Frontier, itself a major contributor to the airport’s passenger growth, Alaska Airlines and Sun Country Airlines out of Airside A so it could create more gates for Spirit.

Minner said Spirit’s growth illustrates why Tampa International is in the middle of a $2 billion long-range expansion so that it can handle 34 million passengers a year, up from the current 22 million.

The first phase consisted of moving the rental car operations out of the main terminal to a new rental car center accessible by the SkyConnect train.

The second phase, now under way, includes dramatically increasing the number of curbside dropoff and pickup lanes at the terminal and developing an office building and hotel near the new rental car center.

The third phase is expected to add a 16-gate airside to the terminal for both domestic and international flights.

Airport officials have worked over the past year with airlines to make sure the new airside will be the right size, to understand the costs, and to ensure “that the demand is in fact there,” Minner said. “With Spirit’s growth and other airlines growing in our market, the pressure really is on us to make sure that we continue to have that growth capacity to meet the needs of Tampa Bay travelers."

Spirit Airlines at a glance

Headquarters: Miramar, but with a planned move to a new $250 million facility containing offices and a crew-training center at Dania Beach in Broward County during 2022.

Operations: 600 daily flights to 75 destinations in the United States, Latin America and the Caribbean. Spirit projects it will carry 35 million passengers in 2019.

Target customer: Someone generally traveling for leisure, often to visit friends and relatives. Paying out of their own pocket, as opposed to using a corporate or expense account. Total price, not flight schedules, primarily drives decisions.

Annual revenue: $3.3 billion.

Tampa International Airport’s top carriers

Southwest: 6.9 million passengers for a 31 percent market share

Delta: 3.8 million, 17 percent

American: 3.5 million, 16 percent

United: 2.2 million, 10 percent

Spirit: 1.9 million, 9 percent

JetBlue: 1.3 million, 6 percent

Frontier: 1.2 million, 5 percent

Source: Tampa International Airport, Oct. 1, 2018, through Sept. 30, 2019.

Tampa International Airport’s fastest-growing airlines

Spirit: 437,262 additional passengers, up 38 percent

Delta: 282,736, up 25 percent

American: 151,476, up 13 percent

Frontier: 136,723, up 12 percent

United: 95,138, up 8 percent

Source: Tampa International Airport, Oct. 1, 2018, through Sept. 30, 2019.