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Tampa airport showing signs of COVID recovery, but overseas still lags

A rise in coronavirus cases has slowed efforts to bounce back and international travel is still far from pre-pandemic levels.
The Tampa skyline is in the distance as a Spirit Airlines passenger plane taxis on a runway at Tampa International Airport on Wednesday, April 14, 2021, in Tampa.
The Tampa skyline is in the distance as a Spirit Airlines passenger plane taxis on a runway at Tampa International Airport on Wednesday, April 14, 2021, in Tampa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Sep. 2
Updated Sep. 2

Tampa International Airport had a busy summer.

The number of passengers are nearly at pre-pandemic levels. More than 1.7 million travelers passed through the airport in July, the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority reported Thursday. While 2021 passenger traffic is down about 5.6 percent compared to 2019 so far, it’s an improvement over 2020 when uncertainty over the coronavirus brought airline traffic to historic lows.

“We navigated the worst storm this ship’s ever been in,” said Joe Lopano, CEO of the airport. “And now I’m happy to tell you we came out stronger than before the pandemic.”

Board members voted to approve the 2022 budget, which projects a total of 20.6 million passengers and a record revenue for the airport of $283.1 million.

Commissioner Stacy White was the only board member to vote against the budget, raising skepticism on the rosy outlook because of low vaccination rates in Florida and concerns about the latest delta surge.

Related: Tampa airport projects more passengers, record revenues in 2022 budget

“I’m not sure we’re out of the woods in respect to airline travel,” White said.

Vice Chairman Robert Watkins disagreed, saying he’s confident the airport’s future will be sound.

Tampa International is faring better than most other airports. Pandemic recovery of nationwide passenger activity in July was nearly 80 percent, according to Transportation Security Administration data. Tampa was nearly at 95 percent, though early numbers showed a dip in August.

The airport hosted its largest job fair to date last month with nearly 1,000 positions to fill. More than 800 people applied, airport officials reported, and over 400 job offers were made.

People sit for interviews during a job fair at Tampa International Airport, Wednesday, August 25, 2021 in Tampa.
People sit for interviews during a job fair at Tampa International Airport, Wednesday, August 25, 2021 in Tampa. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

Airport officials anticipate travel to slow some in September, as it does every year at the end of the summer vacation season. It’s unclear how Florida’s high coronavirus caseloads may affect travel going into the fall months.

“We are seeing continued pressure from COVID,” said Christopher Minner, the airport’s executive vice president of marketing and communications.

International travel into Tampa is still low, but slowly increasing. The airport saw more than 14,000 international passengers in July, which is an 86 percent decline from July 2019. Flights to and from Canada resumed in July, and more connections are expected to resume in November.

The European Union took the U.S. off the “safe list” for nonessential travel Monday. Unvaccinated Americans could face more restrictions going forward. Connections between Tampa and Zurich, Switzerland or Frankfurt, Germany were pushed back to mid-December, Minner said.

The airport also added a new carrier, the low-cost carrier Avelo, which offers flights to New Haven, Conn.